Thursday, August 30, 2012

Natural Family Personalism

I’d like to pick up my thread on modernism as it is expressed in phenomenology and personalism, and attempt to make some points about NFP, “serious reasons”, and conscience.

As I mentioned in my previous post, it seems to me that the combination of phenomenology and personalism – which go hand-in-hand – leads the untrained lay “philosopher” into some serious errors of theology, morality, and logic which can be summed up in the one sentence that epitomizes society today: “It’s all about me.”

Modernist/personalist philosophy says that “reality” is to be found in the heart, and is not concerned with whether that “reality” exists outside the experience of the believer.  We see this percolating down through secular society as the notion that the only thing that matters is “my experience” of whatever “reality” might be under consideration. I don’t think it’s too much of a jump to see that current popular thinking on the use of NFP is a product of modernism. I’m not saying that NFP is not a licit form of birth control, because the Church has made it clear that it is – for “serious reasons”, of course. And there’s the rub…again.

As I have developed my thinking about NFP and expressed it on this blog, I have received several comments along the lines of “you can’t judge other people’s reasons for using NFP”. For the most part, this is true, and I personally do not judge others’ unknown reasons for using NFP (heck, I don’t even know whether or not they ARE using NFP unless they tell me!).

But this “don’t judge me” attitude also makes the modernist/phenomenologist/personalist foundation of current NFP thinking quite obvious. It says loud and clear that each individual’s experience is the determinant of the “reality” of the “serious reasons” for NFP use. On the one hand, NFP proponents rightly claim that recent Church documents specifically state that NFP is allowed, but on the other, they dismiss the “serious reasons” part because they assume that this is part of the personal experience that defines the reality of the need to regulate births.

I’ve found it difficult to reason with many NFP promoters because of their idea that there’s no “reality” of “serious reasons” outside the person’s experience. But this notion is wrong. Objectively wrong. Otherwise, we are reduced to relativism, which is an untenable position.

There is Church teaching (on this and many other subjects). There is Truth – objective truth. Truth is truth whether or not one’s experience agrees with that truth. For example, you can say “I don’t believe in gravity” all you want, but you are still going to fall when you step off the edge of a cliff. And you can say “I don’t believe in hell” all you want, but, as Venerable Fulton Sheen said, “You will when you get there.”

With NFP and the regulation of births, we get into all manner of emotional objections that are rooted in personal experience – and there are some tragic ones to consider! But just because a teaching of the Church is a “hard saying” doesn’t mean that we are not called to follow it, does it? If you went to a Novus Ordo Mass last Sunday, hopefully you heard a little about “hard sayings”.

Our true home is in Heaven, and we don’t get there by taking the easy road. Whenever we find ourselves saying, “It’s too haaaaard”, we should remember that the path to holiness is not an easy one (please, someone, remind me of this next time I’m feeling sorry for myself!). That’s why Our Lord said, “How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few” (Matt 7:14).

The path to holiness will involve some pain – physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual. We tend to forget that in this world; instead, we seek always to alleviate the pain in whatever way seems to be the most expedient. Why do you think medical insurance is so expensive? I think that, in part, it’s because we as a society have become so dependent on it. We count on the medical professionals to solve even the most minor of our physical (and psychological) maladies. Watch a few TV commercials: whatever ails you, there’s a drug for that!

The point I’m trying to make is that our fallen human nature will likely try to convince us that we have a “serious reason” to avoid pregnancy, even when that reason is only a mild inconvenience. It’s difficult to discern a truly “serious” reason in our society today, since most people are pushing the small family idea under the guise of “responsible parenthood”; we are easily fooled by the secular voices and attitudes sounding in our ears and thoughts.  But just because it’s easy to fall into the trap doesn’t mean we should jump in willingly. If we abandon any objective standard for “serious reasons”, then moral relativism creeps in and we allow any reason to be “serious”…just because it feels that way to the individual couple. 

So, what about objective standards, then? That leads me to consider other comments I’ve received and read on other blogs – the ones claiming that no pope has given a definitive list of “serious reasons”, so it’s clearly up to each individual to decide what’s “serious” enough for them. On one level, I agree that this is true: there’s no exhaustive list, and individual circumstances surely will play a part in a couple’s decision to use NFP. Still, prior to the major modernist take-over at Vatican II, there had been some guidance in examining the reasons for using periodic continence.  In his Allocution to MidwivesPope Pius XII said:

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

Granted, he is not laying out specific problems, and in the decades since, the modernist influence has encouraged a broad interpretation of these terms. However, from the homily I transcribed here, we have this non-modernist interpretation:

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

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

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

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

Admittedly, this is a priest speaking – not a bishop or a doctor of the Church or a pope. His interpretation makes sense, though; it’s grounded in centuries-old Church teaching, and it is not colored by feel-good personalistic double-speak.

For further guidance concerning “serious” reasons, we can consider that Pope Pius XII also noted that

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

So, the question of “serious reasons” is definitely something to be guided by a properly formed conscience. The problem is that the modernist, personalistic tendencies that have come into play since Vatican II have led the faithful to an erroneous view of conscience. Many forget – or never knew – that one’s conscience must be properly formed in accordance with Church teaching. It’s not enough to say, “I examined my conscience”; there must be a constant striving to align that conscience with the mind of the Church.

And the mind of the Church has been dead set against birth control since the beginning.
I’ll end with an excerpt from a very cogent comment was left by Cindy on another blog (my emphases):

…[A]fter 5 years of successful NFP practice, I abandoned it completely when I realized that my knowledge had crossed a very ambiguous moral line. When my relationship with my husband became a scheduled event, when loving each other was limited to infertile days, when I wanted my husband and he resisted because it was my fertile time, I decided to call it quits….That same year, I was at a homeschool conference where a priest was discussing NFP. His words ring in my ears still:
“NFP is neither morally good or evil. It is morally neutral. And it would be a good idea to stop encouraging couples to use it for spacing their children. In many occasions, it only leads married couples to sin. It should be avoided unless there is some truly grave reason for married couples to avoid having more children, such as the case of serious illness of the mother which might leave other children orphaned.”

…After discussing the matter with many of our NFP using friends, we all agreed. We were using NFP as contraception. We didn’t want any more children. Out of 10 or so couples, only 1 couple was using NFP to space their children. It was eye opening. While I agree…that, fundamentally, there is absolutely nothing but freedom in knowing how our bodies work, the motives behind NFP use are often very troubling. And this is not God’s way. Science is an amazing tool, but when we place our faith in our scientific methods over our faith in God’s Providence, we are in jeopardy of losing our souls.

…[W]e cannot abandon our reasoning ability. But, as St. Thomas Aquinas reflected, our reasoning must be properly ordered lest it lead us to sin. I have come to believe it is highly imprudent to tell married couples that NFP is a moral good.

For more NFP posts on this blog, click on the "NFP Posts" tab at the top of the page.


  1. I don’t know if anyone is monitoring this blog anymore, but I’ve been reading all of the NFP posts and it’s really all ringing true for me. Thank you for writing these posts! I sure would like to share my thoughts and experiences related to NFP via email, Dr. Jay if you are still interested in this discussion.


  2. Hi Audrey! I'd be happy to hear from you. You can email me at


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