Responding to this:

I have been meaning to post on the very intimate topic of Natural Family Planning (NFP) for some time now. As I jump from forum to forum, it is apparent how sensitive this topic is. It seems to me that we need more definitive leadership for this very delicate and controversial issue. As I see it, everyone is left to their own formation of conscience to determine what constitutes a “grave reason” (or just motive), and we can only hope we are not mistaken…

First, and most importantly, Humanae Vitae does not necessitate a “grave” reason. It only necessitates a “iustae”, or just, reason (HV, paragraph 10; CCC 2368). The two are not the same thing, and connote different levels of justification. This is, of course, not to say that everyone using NFP to space children has reached the criteria of a “just reason”, however it is not correct to say that they require a “grave” one, and it is not correct to make “grave” and “just” equivalent.

Furthermore, Pope Pius XII has stated that “We affirmed the legitimacy and at the same time the limits—truly very wide—of that controlling of births which, unlike the so-called “birth control,” is compatible with God’s law” (emphasis added; Homily to the Association of Large Families, November 26, 1951).

And the reason it is left to the individual is that everyone’s situation varies. The Church simply cannot lay out all the various permutations of human life in which NFP can and cannot be licitly used. But the Church does say that “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions” are to be factored into “responsible parenthood” (HV, paragraph 10).

There are certainly gray areas within Catholic moral teaching, but in my opinion the “gray” of NFP has gradually become the norm, the rule, instead of the exception.

It is certainly the case that the Church has not given a detailed treatment of the topic of what constitutes the bounds of this “gray area”, but that is precisely why it is not up to us to try to nail down the gray area. Where the Church has not bound, nor are we to bind. Certainly, the Church has always emphasized, and does emphasize our duty to be generous with our “fecundity”. And surely people are to be reminded of that. However, our responsibility to fecundity is not absolute, to the exclusion of the parameters that HV does mention as being part of a responsible parenthood.

As Catholics seeking to do God’s holy will, how do we address the issue of “family planning” within the context of traditional Catholic teaching on marriage and family? While the world promotes contraception as a responsible life choice, it seems that some think the Church is offering a close-second, a healthy alternative for modern Catholics in the form of NFP.

It is unclear what is being claimed here. Certainly the Church does “offer” NFP (cf. CCC 2370) as not only a healthy, but also a licit alternative for Catholics. As the author later clearly states, NFP is “not” contraception. So the Church is not promoting contraception.

It seems to me NFP has become a pastoral program in the Church. Some call it a “new program of life”, an oxymoron in most cases. Perusing the parish calendars at various family life centers, I constantly find mandatory NFP classes posted for newly engaged couples and those already married, seeking to be responsible parents by learning the new art of “Church approved” contraception.

NFP classes should be mandatory. Here’s why. The alternative to NFP classes is not having sex on a wing and a prayer. It is contraception. The pastors of the Church know this. And given the fact that most Catholic couples getting married are planning to contracept, and that they have either never heard of NFP or think it is the “rhythm method”, I think it is clearly a pastoral imperative that pastors make their young couples planning on marriage aware that there is a licit *and* effective alternative to contraception. That’s simply the reality of pastors meeting people where they are at.

What is most troubling in the above paragraph, though, if I understand him correctly, is that the author thinks he knows that NFP is being misused “in most cases”. So according to this, most of the extreme minority of Catholics who have had their eyes opened to the intrinsic evil of contraception are still committing sexual sins because they have not met the author’s criteria for a just cause. Really? Most? Lurking behind much of this seems to be an idea that the Church somehow teaches that we must all have as many children as physically possible, irrespective of personal circumstances. Or at least that there is some ideal family size that is appropriate for everyone. Not so.

Now, I know NFP is not a form of contraception, an artificial means of birth regulation that is intrinsically evil and condemned by the Church. And certainly there are those who use NFP to bring about the birth of a child, and they should be admired for their willingness and desire to cooperate with God in bringing a new soul into existence. However, the currently adopted praxis of NFP strikes me as contraceptive in so far as the mentality and approach to married life are concerned.

Maybe. Probably in some circumstances. But I think the author’s bar is set awfully high if he can state that “the currently adopted praxis of NFP strikes me as contraceptive.”

The excessive attention given to NFP education, usually given to couples for the purpose of avoiding procreation, creates an attitude which is in contradiction to Pope Paul VI’s words in Humanae Vitae: “Love is fecund.” Isn’t NFP to be used strictly by those couples facing “grave reasons”? How is it that NFP is only associated with “grave” or extraordinary circumstances if the program of birth regulation becomes as ordinary as a weekly meeting (as many parish calendars show)?

I want to be in whatever diocese this gentleman is in, if “excessive attention” is being given to NFP. I would certainly venture that this experience is most likely vastly different than most people’s. I would bet that not 10% of Catholics have the first clue what NFP is, so that, even if the attention is “excessive”, it is clearly inadequate. How can it be “excessive” when it is a licit alternative to an intrinsic evil that (supposedly) 96% of your fertile flock is committing? There seems to be an element of straining at gnats and swallowing camels here.

And as we have seen, the answer is no…it is not to be used strictly by those with grave reasons.

Throughout my years at university, I was confronted with engaged friends planning a future together. They shared with me their intention to use NFP while pursuing higher degrees of education in order to secure a profession for themselves before having a family. After such exchanges, I often wondered, “Does a master’s degree or PhD constitute a just motive to use NFP?”

The first answer to the question is that it is not up to us to judge, seen as we are not the people inhabiting their lives and situations, and thus not privy to all that might go into determining the liceity of such an act. Secondly, as far as I know, the Church has not forbidden married people from pursuing graduate level educations. And as I know firsthand, such educations can come along with extreme poverty, both financially and temporally. This hardly seems like a glaring example of an irresponsible parenthood.

How is the Catholic idea of marriage, with children as its primary end or purpose, shifting these days? Is our understanding of marriage affected, as more and more couples go the altar planning that years will pass before the reality of children is made manifest in their life together?

In the same paragraph as the one quoted above, Pope Pius XII states, “The Church, on the other hand, can understand, with sympathy and comprehension, the real difficulties of matrimonial life in these our days” (emphasis added). Whatever it is the Pope was actually speaking of, he clearly saw that parenthood “in these our days” faced “real difficulties” that he, at least, regarded as being new. Difficulties which he saw as a “reason” to affirm the legitimacy of licit “controlling of births”, within “truly very wide” limits.

Procreation certainly is the primary purpose of the marital act. But this does not mean that marriage necessarily calls for large families from every Catholic couple, under the circumstances of “these our days”.

Today, I face the pastoral panorama of NFP classes (i.e. NFP 101: Consciously Charting in a Contracepting Culture), marriage encounters, and couple-to-couple study groups. Where does such an explosion of marriage intervention programs and conjugal fidelity counseling fall in the context of Catholic history and tradition? I know Catholic families are the minority in today’s society, but are such families a sign of contradiction or only superficially dancing to an apparently different rhythm of life, latently influenced by our modern culture? Were Catholics at a loss before there were JPII Centers on Marriage and Family or Theology of the Body?

It seems to me the use of NFP is being promoted as a new way of life and is being abused. At what point do we let God be God, ending the continuous search for a perfect method to control our future responsibilities?

NFP is and should be promoted as a new way of life. But new, not with respect to the Catholic tradition, but with respect to the contraceptive culture which the world and Catholics have embraced. And, I think, that is the crucial point. We don’t live in age here and now that is identical to the ages of Catholic tradition past. And because we live in a new age faced with new challenges and sins that cry out to heaven, the Church appropriately is responding in a new way, promoting licit responsible parenthood. Which, when it comes to it, is the role of the Magisterium, to bring out of her treasure “what is new and what is old” (Mt 13:52). To apply the faith of the apostles in new and convincing ways, to convert the prevailing culture, which is in the Church, as much as out of it.

I repeat: I am not trying to downplay the importance of being generous with the gift of life. But, I also feel quite strongly that it is not our role as lay Catholics to develop our own sterner para-Magisteriums, seeking to bind where the Church has not bound.


~ by Rob on April 17, 2007.

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