Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Divine Providence and NFP

In the process of exploring the issues around NFP, I was introduced to the term “providentialist”. Some NFP promoters have written disparagingly of “providentialists”, implying that they promote just having baby after baby without taking into account their own physical, emotional, or financial resources. They imply, I think, that God needs a little help in understanding our dire circumstance here on the earthly plane.

If one really looks at what is meant by abandonment to Divine Providence, though, one sees something beautiful and holy – one sees the pathway to Heaven, an intimacy with God, and an expression of full and confident trust in Him.

Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange explains it this way (all emphases mine):

The doctrine of self-abandonment to divine providence is a doctrine obviously founded on the Gospel, but it has been falsely construed by the Quietists, who gave themselves up to a spiritual sloth, more or less renounced the struggle necessary for the attainment of perfection, and seriously depreciated the value and necessity of hope or confidence in God, of with true self-abandonment is a higher form.

But it is possible also to depart from the Gospel teaching on this point in a sense entirely opposite to that of the Quietists with their idle repose, by going to the other extreme of a useless disquiet and agitation.

Here as elsewhere the truth is the culminating point lying between and transcending these two extreme conflicting errors…

Garrigou-Lagrange identifies three principles underlying the concept of abandonment to divine providence, which he sums up in the following way:

Nothing comes to pass but God has foreseen it, willed it or at least permitted it. He wills nothing, permits nothing, unless for the manifestation of His goodness and infinite perfections, for the glory of His Son, and the welfare of those that love Him. In view of these three principles, it is evident that our trust in Providence cannot be too childlike, too steadfast. Indeed, we may go further and say that this trust in Providence should be blind as is our faith, the object of which is those mysteries that are non-evident and unseen (fides est de non visis) for we are certain beforehand that Providence is directing all things infallibly to a good purpose, and we are more convinced of the rectitude of His designs than we are of the best of our own intentions. Therefore, in abandoning ourselves to God, all we have to fear is that our submission will not be wholehearted enough.

He then adds a fourth principle:

…[O]bviously self-abandonment does not dispense us from doing everything in our power to fulfill God's will as made known in the commandments and counsels, and in the events of life…

Then he concludes that

…[S]o long as we have the sincere desire to carry out His will thus made known from day to day, we can and indeed we must abandon ourselves for the rest to the divine will of good pleasure, no matter how mysterious it may be, and thus avoid a useless disquiet and mere agitation.

Now, it strikes me that, in all honesty, we should step back and consider whether the charting and planning and “discerning” that are apparently inherent in the use of NFP might not qualify as “a useless disquiet and mere agitation”.

I’ve read a number of blog posts and comments that attest to the fact that NFP requires some work – charting, abstaining, etc. And NFP promoters have been accused by some of making too much of their “heroic” periodic continence. Other “providentialist” types have suggested that there is a good reason that a couple might have difficulty subduing their desire for the intimacy of the marital act which is their right (and duty): God has created male and female in such a way that they desire each other more when conception is most possible! (He has a plan, you know!)

And I would suggest that it’s a lot more difficult and more heroic to learn to trust Divine Providence than it is to abstain from the marital act for 8-11 days each month.
Garrigou-Lagrange continues:

If every day we do what we can to be faithful to God in the ordinary routine of life, we may be confident that He will give us grace to remain faithful in whatever extremity we may find ourselves through His permission; and if we have to suffer for Him, He will give us the grace to die a heroic death rather than be ashamed of Him and betray Him.

These are the principles underlying the doctrine of trusting self-abandonment… By constant fidelity to duty, we avoid the false and idle repose of the Quietist, and on the other hand by a trustful self-abandonment we are saved from a useless disquiet and a fruitless agitation. Self-abandonment would be sloth did it not presuppose this daily fidelity, which indeed is a sort of springboard from which we may safely launch ourselves into the unknown. Daily fidelity to the divine will as expressed gives us a sort of right to abandon ourselves completely to the divine will of good pleasure as yet not made known to us.

Trusting in divine providence doesn’t mean trusting that everything will work out just fine, with no problems or challenges to overcome. It means a willingness to accept even (and maybe even especially) the trials which God permits you to experience, knowing that these trials are your path to holiness.

And there will be trials, of course – more for some than for others. Consider the family in my community, for example, whose five children have life-threatening heart problems. Now, those parents only recently discovered that the problems exist in all five children; but do you think that they even consider the thought that “if only we’d known, we wouldn’t have had five”? It’s my guess that those parents, while devastated emotionally and financially, cannot imagine life without each of those little souls, despite the hardships that their entire family is undergoing. And do you think there might be some graces bestowed by God in their trials? I suspect that they are able to look at their journey through this trial and point to many gifts from God that they would not have received otherwise.

The philosophy of the practice of NFP is closely related to Blessed John Paul II’s Theology of the Body; and some interpretations of TOB seem to keep the focus on the body, even while discussing the connection to the spiritual. This bodily focus can be seen in some books and articles which emphasize the “goodness” of the sex act, and the pleasure inherent in it, without paying much attention to the dangers of concupiscence that are also inherent in our sexual desires, and the importance of marital chastity. 

But throughout the ages, the saints have known that a focus on the body weighs us down and prevents or impedes the ascent of the soul toward God. That’s one reason why fasting is important; it helps us to control that concupiscence we are susceptible to in eating (because eating is, by nature, pleasurable!). Focusing on our bodily needs and the pleasure of the marital act tends to make us forget that our true home in in Heaven – where, of course, there is no marriage, and hence no marital act, because there is no need for procreation.

And so, regarding NFP and the spacing of births (and even the issue of infertility) we can follow Garrigou-Lagrange’s train of thought:

What is our practical conclusion to be? It is this, that in doing our utmost to carry out our daily duties we must for the rest abandon ourselves to divine providence, and that with the most childlike confidence. And if we are really striving to be faithful in little things, in the practice of humility, gentleness, and patience, in the daily routine of our lives, God on His part will give us grace to be faithful in greater and more difficult things, should He perchance ask them of us; then, in those exceptional circumstances, He will give to those that seek Him exceptional graces.

…We have a perfect model of this abandonment to divine providence in St. Joseph, in the many difficulties that beset him at the moment of our Lord's birth at Bethlehem, and again when he heard the mournful prophecy of the aged Simeon, and during all the time that elapsed from the flight away from Herod into Egypt until the return to Nazareth.

Following his example, let us live our lives in that same spirit, fulfilling our daily duties, and the grace of God will never be wanting. By His grace we shall be equal to anything He asks of us, no matter how difficult it may sometimes be.

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


  1. Except Pope John Paul II wrote that married couples are called to "fruitful and responsible love".

    1. How does such providentialism the command of the Church to spouses to "fulfill this duty [to transmit life] with a sense of human and Christian responsibility (CCC 2367)?

    2. Given the health benefits of charting, including detecting cycle irregularities that may cause miscarriage, properly dating pregnancies, and general gynecological health, would charting not be obligatory as part of this Christian responsibility?

    3. If spouses are charting and aware of their fertility, then they are aware of the relative risk of pregnancy of every sexual encounter. The question is not whether babies will come as they may, but a conscious decision to accept a certain risk of pregnancy, whether any "rules" of NFP are followed or not.

    Therefore, while spouses are called to be generous and open to life and large families are a bless, a true providentialist lifestyle may indeed be contrary to the commands of the Church.

    1. Yes, I think it is prudent to consider one's health (mental and physical) before attempting to conceive.

      Looking at this objectively, either side could be acting selfishly. One couple by not trusting in God's plan for their family, and the other by not using NFP when they clearly need to avoid pregnancy.

      Prudence and prayer are crucial when being open and generous to life. That applies to both NFP couples and Providentialists.

    2. One can certainly use NFP to be generous and open to life. One can even use it a "quasi-providentialist" way without taking any particular action to achieve or avoid pregnancy.

      We have used NFP this way for a brief period of time. Pregnancy did not result, nor did we take efforts to TTC. We have also used NFP with "cheating", which is a rational response to being "on the fence" in deciding whether you should pursue new life or avoiding pregnancy. You react to your own ambivalence by giving God a bigger opportunity to act if He so desires.

      My point is that even "quasi-providenitalist" use of NFP and "cheating" is not providentialism. Each decision to use NFP in a certain way is made based on the same analysis of "generous fruitfulness" vs. "responsible parenthood". Every night, the relative chance of pregnancy is known and the decision made based on that chance. This is hardly "abandoning ourselves to divine providence".

  2. Dear Mr. WaywardSon,

    Your misunderstanding of "abandonment to Divine Providence" and "Providentialism" is breathtaking.

    Your problem is that you have defined "Providentialism" in a way that no spiritual master would recognize. As it relates to NFP, your definition is, practically, "have as much sex as possible without regard to consequences." Left out of this definition entirely is the meaning of marital chastity, that virtue by which we gain mastery over unruly concupiscence within the sacrament of Matrimony.

    You insult Dr. Boyd by showing ignorance of why she is writing about this subject in the first place, choosing instead to "cherry pick" from ideas that presume knowledge of everything she has written before.

    Go back and read Dr. Boyd's postings from the beginning (, starting with the post at the bottom of the list. She begins by transcribing a sermon that caused her to question the way in which NFP is both taught and practiced in the Church today. Nowhere does she reject NFP out of hand. Her concern is that what began as something permitted for "serious reasons" has morphed into Catholic birth control, where virtually ANY reason is considered sufficient. What is promoted enthusiastically on diocesan web sites, what has spawned whole industries, is an understanding of matrimony and its divinely ordered ends that is radically contrary to centuries of authoritative Church teaching. Dr. Boyd addresses all this with great care and attention, answering all your concerns, even raising questions that have not occurred to you, all of which you dismiss as if one sentence here or one sentence there in the Catechism or elsewhere is sufficient for understanding the depths of mystery in the sacrament of Matrimony.

    Your objections would be laughable if it weren't obvious that you are sincere. Doctors of the Church have cautioned us that unchastity, impurity and sensuality cloud the intellect and interfere with the ability to reason well. NFP, as it is taught and practiced today IN GENERAL, is unchaste, impure and immodest. It is not surprising, therefore, that such superficial thinking should emerge from its most ardent supporters.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. And you act as if the Catechism is irrelevant.

      As for the original post, it focuses on ONE address of Pope Pius XII, while ignoring the work of John Paul II and recent statements of Benedict XVI. This address was to a specific audience of Italian midwives. Furthermore, it misinterprets the address by trying to come up with a "checklist" of objective serious reasons.

      Instead of taking one sentence from the catechism, the sermon took a couple of paragraphs from an address to a limited audience.

      The teaching of the Church is rather clear: Generous fruitfulness and responsible parenthood. The Catechism tells us this is a matter of discernment for each individual couple each month. John Paul II has written likewise and he will almost certainly be recognized as a Doctor of the Church.

      As for concupiscence in marriage, I think Dr. Boyd also misunderstands this. The teaching of the Church is quite clear that sex in marriage is indeed holy. This is WHY contraception is immoral, because it messes this up. St. John Chrysostom, Doctor of the Church, said that even if conception did not result that sex between married couples made them "one flesh" like ointment mixed with and oil. So there is a LONG tradition of the Church being supportive of sex in marriage.

      Parenthood is good and children are good. The Church's command is to responsible parenthood. And what is and is not responsible does vary from couple to couple and is a matter of prayerful discernment.

      NFP is difficult enough to follow and so contrary to selfishness that I doubt many couples COULD use it selfishly. This is why the Church is so supportive of it. That they may not be having as many children as you or anyone else thinks they should.

    3. That they may not be having as many children as you or anyone else thinks they should is irrelevant.

    4. WaywardSon,

      So far you seem to have read the first posting.

      Keep reading. It gets better. Everything you say has already been addressed in the other postings. Read them.

      If you HAD read the other posts, you would know that Dr. Boyd's conclusions are not based on one address of Pius XII to a limited audience. "Responsible parenthood" is a totally new concept, never before seen in the history of theological reflection on the sacrament of Matrimony. Right now "responsible" is understood as "right number." That is absurdly simplistic.

    5. I agree that "right number" is overly simplistic. But NFP requires couples to re-evaluate every month. This is a good thing.

      I don't think the Church has ever called spouses to irresponsible parenthood. So responsible parenthood has always been a requirement. Infant and child mortality has dropped dramatically since even Pius XII's day, so it is not entirely unreasonable that the Church would put more of an emphasis on this than they did in the past and be more accepting of morally licit family planning.

      Benedict XVI holds the power of the keys and the binding and loosing, not you, not I, not Dr. Jay. (Former head of the CDF! You think Joseph Ratzinger doesn't Know the faith?)

      Catholics are better off following the teaching of the Church as defined in the Catechism over a handful of bloggers who think the Church is wrong.

      When you start to doubt whether the Church is truly upholding the moral law, you get into the territory of Marcel Lefebvre and Martin Luther.

    6. I've not said that "the Church is wrong". I have acknowledged that the Church says NFP is licit. I have pointed out that the Church also says NFP is to be used for "serious reasons", and not too many people seem to be taking that into consideration.

      I do believe that there is a problem with the concept of "responsible parenthood", and I also believe that it is permissible to question that concept since it was only introduced in very recent times - like the last 50 years or so. It is NOT a constant teaching of the Church.

    7. I think you dramatically overestimate those who use it for NFP selfish reasons. I also think you set the bar too high for what is and is not "serious" (the Catechism uses "just" and all of these are translations anyway). You also fail to appreciate the subjective nature of the process.

      The couples who are using NFP ARE the faithful ones. They ARE the ones who want to follow the Church. And they DO question serious reasons every month. The entire process goes against selfishness and the Church recognizes this. But many of these faithful couples forget responsible parenthood and may believe that they are obligated to pursue life when it really is not prudent or responsible to and they DO have serious reasons. Babies are good, but they are not easy. It is a balancing test for a reason.

      If anything, I think that the Church should more clearly speak of responsible parenthood so that the 82% of Catholic women using contraception will no longer think that their Church wants them popping out babies until their bodies can't take it anymore. Because if they listen to the Church, they would find that fertility awareness alone is so much better for their health and their marriage than contraception, even if were to use it selfishly. That is not the teaching of the Church and never was.

    8. A)Since I have never made an estimate concerning the percentage of couples using NFP for selfish reasons, I wonder how you know I've "overestimated". I've said people CAN and probably DO at times misuse it.

      B) I recognize that many of the couples using NFP instead of artificial contraception are trying to be faithful to the Church. I am not interested in passing judgment on a particular couple's motives. I am interested in looking at the big picture, the philosophy underlying the use of NFP and the teaching of it, and the influence of a contraceptive mentality on the shrinking Catholic family and the corresponding lack of vocations...not to mention the corresponding decline in the number of souls that will be brought forth to populate heaven.

      C) "Responsible parenthood" is a new concept. It is not a constant teaching of the Church. I think I may have mentioned that once or twice before this.

      D) While I don't believe that the Church wants women "popping out babies till their bodies can't take it anymore", I also believe that women who choose to do so for the love of God will be richly rewarded both here on earth and in heaven.

    9. Thanks for the clarification.

      I do not know how many couples are or are not using it selfishly either, only that the process is designed so that it is very difficult to avoid pregnancy that way for selfish reasons.

      I am pretty sure the "more souls to populate heaven" is incorrect doctrine, but I don't have a source on that.

      I want people to know that the Church does not require Catholics to have more children than they can take of. It is a common misconception and I think a big reason why so few Catholics listen to the Church on the issues. I saw one woman on Melinda Gates site who supported her contraception initiative even though she was Catholic. Reading her story, she started using the Pill because she had good reason to avoid pregnancy and felt she had no choice. It damaged her health, but then she found NFP. (which she learned from a secular source) She LOVES NFP, wishes she'd know about it earlier (apparently pre-Cana didn't cover it) and is promoting it "despite" her Catholic faith. I think this problem is part of Ms. Gates confusion as well.

      But she was lucky. Women--Catholic women--are DYING because of their birth control pills. It's rare, but it does happen. And they need to know that they can plan their families safely and morally. If they drop the pills for NFP, they probably will have an extra child or two.

      As for large families, yes, the Church clearly says that large families are good. But this should come from a sense of generosity, not out of a mistaken obligation to sacrifice their physical and mental health to have to "populate heaven with souls" with children they can't take care of. Serious reasons do exist, they should be discerned properly and they should not be disregarded lightly. Trusting in divine providence is good, throwing ourselves from the temple walls is not.

      I hope this is not your intent, but some people are taking you this way.

  3. @waywardson
    "I am pretty sure the 'more souls to populate heaven' is incorrect doctrine, but I don't have a source on that."
    That source would be the Father of Lies. The Devil himself absolutely wants there to be fewer souls to populate heaven.

    1. Actually it was Janet Smith, PhD.

      God creates souls, not the parents. Nor do the parents need to create a child as a "landing place" for a soul. The idea that parents create new souls is heresy.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Waywardson, no one said the parents create souls - neither I nor Fr. Gardner have insinuated such a thing. And, I might add, Dr. Smith does not constitute the magisterium of the Church; her work does not carry that kind of weight, and she has her own biases against Thomistic teaching. And while there is not a "celestial holding cell" for souls awaiting a body, the idea of God's antecedent will vs. God's consequent will can be brought to bear here. But that's for another post, another time.

  5. Dr. Boyd,
    You keep re-iterating that Blessed JPII and TOB and "responsible parenthood" can and should be disregarded because they do not constitute the "constant teaching of the Church." How long must the Magisterium teach something in order for it be included in the "constant teaching" for you? When Pio Nono formally declared the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, do you think that there were people that had the same opinion? That the Immaculate Conception of our Blessed Mother was not a part of the "constant teaching of the Church" simply because it had not previously existed?

    The Holy Ghost guides the Church and the Magisterium. The Church, pursuant to her Divine Mission, is the only authority competent to transmit what she has received to a broken world. Using this authority, the Supreme Pontiff of recent memory has illuminated this concept of responsible parenthood and if you wish to disregard this teaching because of your stated reasons, then you fail to acknowledge the authority of the Pontiff.

  6. Improvident and CheerfulJuly 23, 2012 at 2:27 PM

    Contrary to what you say. The Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has been part of the constant teaching of the Church since the early Church. The Holy See does a thorough investigation before promulgating a Dogma. It would not have been promulgated if it were new teaching.
    If you read the section in the Catechism on Responsibility and Freedom I think you would have a better understanding of what the Church means by responsibility.
    A Pope can't undo the magisterial teaching of previous Popes. He can clarify things. He can change some rubrics like the number of fast days etc, but he can't create new doctrines. So whatever JPII has written on marriage has to be understood within the totality of all previous magisterial teaching. I am a huge fan of JPII but I think it will be a very long time before he will be understood.
    I saw him in Boston in 1977 and I remember something he said. One was, "Parents, Do not deprive your children of brothers and sisters."
    We all need to exercise "Responsible Parenthood" by educating our children in the Christian life but that has nothing to do with NFP.

  7. Check tomorrow for my post on "The Magisterial Weight of Theology of the Body". I'll be posting it early in the morning.


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