(Before I dive into this hot button issue I’d like to say I am NOT an expert. I am however, a devout Catholic, a wife and a mother. In this way I am simply providing a commentary on the issues I will cover but will not be going into great detail on everything that I touch on)
“Oh how sweet, a boy and a girl, you’ve got the set now!”
“Two children at 23! That’s young! I guess you’ve got that out of the road now.”
“I know I’m starting late, but we wanted to get a good start on our mortgage before we had a baby to look after.”
“I was thinking about another one but when I had no. 2 I thought ‘Right! thats enough for me!'”
If you’re a parent you’ve probably heard all of the above and worse. And if you’re a Catholic you’ve probably been slotted into the “breeding like rabbits” insult at least once. If you come from a large family you’ve probably had a check-out chick/guy look like their eyes are about to fall out their head when you answer affirmatively to the question as to whether you and the other kids grouped around the trolley are all one family. Oh, and if you’re under 25 years of age and have more than one child and plan on having more, well you’re probably an irresponsible teen mother or at the very least have little to no ambitions in life.
Its no secret that those little monkeys who bring us so much Joy along with their challenges are seen as a millstone around their parents’ neck by the larger proportion of society. And that the conjugal act is no more than a source of physical pleasure only attached to Love in varying degrees depending on who you speak to. The idea that children are always (and I mean ALWAYS) a gift inseparable to the sacred and sacramental act of marriage is labelled archaic or parochial. However, the reality is in separating the two entirely, Love becomes selfish instead of selfless and relationships become more susceptible to a pattern of taking instead of giving.
A group I am a part of on Facebook recently brought up the topic of Natural Family Planning in a Catholic context. There has, is and always will be rather heated discussions surrounding the valid use of NFP which usually touch on the use of contraception, the meaning of marriage and the conjugal act (not that the conversation I speak of was heated- it was actually incredibly sensitive and enlightening). Inspired by this thread I decided to reach into the wisdom of the Church and find more detail regarding the permissible use of NFP. It was to my happy surprise that I found almost every Pope in the last century has at least commented on the subject, from Pius XI to John Paul II. It is uplifting to see how the Church (so often written off as misogynistic and bureaucratic) constantly emphasises the dignity of women and spousal unity when promoting virtuous continence and reprimanding any use of contraception.
Pius XI lays foundations in his encyclical Casti Connubli, which his successors build on, explaining the primary and secondary ends of the conjugal act, the proper use of virtuous continence and a range of other aspects of married love. In paragraph 56 Pius discusses the preservation of the “the chastity of the nuptial union” through the Church’s teaching which condemns the deliberate frustration of the natural power of the conjugal act. The context of the encyclical comes into play here: Margaret Sanger had launched her birth control movement, companiate marriage (i.e having a mistress known to one’s wife/habitual bigamy) was promoted as the liberal way of life which began the incline of divorce. So Pius raised the voice of the Holy Mother Church to defend marriage and its fruitfulness, protecting the our most vulnerable offspring.
Whilst condemning the use of artificial contraception and abortion, Pius recognises the “health of the mother and the danger to her life” and is “filled with the greatest admiration when he sees a mother risking her life with heroic fortitude”. How great a compliment to the strength and virtue of mothers! More specifically to my central topic, in paragraph 59 Pius sets up the framework from which his successors develop the detail in Church’s teaching on NFP:
“Nor are those considered as acting against nature who, in the married state, use their right in the proper manner although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth. For in matrimony as well as in the use of matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love and the quieting of concupiscence which the husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.”
So, key point number one: BE OPEN TO LIFE AT ALL TIMES.
God can surprise us if He so Wills it regardless of how we design our actions. This means no contraception. Its a non-negotiable. And this also refers to ones attitude. NFP should not be used simply as a natural contraceptive. Pius XII touches on this in his address to Italian midwives and then to families in 1951. “Nonetheless, the moral lawfulness of such conduct (that is the use of NFP) of husband and wife should be affirmed or denied according as their intention to observe constantly those periods is or is not based on sufficiently morally sure motives. The mere fact that husband and wife do not offend the nature of the act and are even ready to accept and bring up the child, who, notwithstanding their precautions, might be born, would not be itself sufficient to guarantee the rectitude of their intention and the unobjectionable morality of their motives.”
When it comes to having children, there must be an accord between husband and wife. Spousal unity can be uplifted by the proper use of NFP when each party constantly seeks and conforms to the will of God. Pius XII indicates one cannot just use NFP for the sake of it but that its must be for grave reason:
“Serious motives, such as those which not rarely arise from medical, eugenic, economic and social so-called “indications,” may exempt husband and wife from the obligatory, positive debt (having children) for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life. From this it follows that the observance of the natural sterile periods may be lawful, from the moral viewpoint: and it is lawful in the conditions mentioned. If, however, according to a reasonable and equitable judgment, there are no such grave reasons either personal or deriving from exterior circumstances, the will to avoid the fecundity of their union, while continuing to satisfy to tile full their sensuality, can only be the result of a false appreciation of life and of motives foreign to sound ethical principles.”
So key point number 2: NFP is for serious situations. This is up to each couple to decide and not for others to judge a couple on. So the number of children you have doesn’t indicate how devout a Catholic you are. But the use of NFP should always be surrounded by great prayerfulness and discernment, in accordance with God’s Will.
All this teaching is developing its detail under the guidance of the Church’s great Magisterium, guarded by the Holy Spirit. In the context of Western culture it is significant to note that theologians increased the examination of the doctrines of the Church regarding matters of life as the movements for birth control, abortion, no-fault-divorce and the sexual revolution gained momentum. As the master of lies sowed his seeds, so the Church responded, always endeavouring to clear the path to Heaven. One group of theologians who tackled the subject were based in Krakow, Poland. And I reckon you probably know who got them together and supervised the project: the then Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla. The document they would produce, The Foundations of the Doctrine of the Church Concerning the Principles of Conjugal Life, along with Wojtyla’s publication, Love and Responsibility, would be the foundations of the future Pope Saint’s (yay!) work the Theology of the Body. BUT before I get that far along I’ll just give you one of the concluding suggestions of the rather large and brain-busting document:
“we aim to propose a greater consistency in the traditional position. The teaching of the Church concerning the natural law as the foundation of the rejection of contraception, found in different places in the study, should be collected in a coherent, logical and clearly presented whole. From there the natural law would appear clearly not just as a philosophical category but as a more theological one, since besides its philosophical and even pre-philosophical content, we find in the natural law elements of a formally theological order, based on knowing the authority of the Magisterium. We think that this would allow the exact notion of the natural law and that of human law to be put on that which this law rests. But these notions — as the supporters of contraception understand them — are divorced rather melodramatically from their traditional understanding in philosophy and theology .”
So key point no.3: The Church’s teachings are based on natural moral law. Contraception deconstructs these laws and therefore undermines the dignity of men and women and the conjugal act. Also the Church DOES have the authority to pronounce on moral issues including that of contraception.
Now, we come to one of the most significant documents pertaining to this topic: HUMANAE VITAE!
This encyclical by Pope Paul VI (who will be beatified later this year- woot!) is often hailed as his great mark on the Church. It was produced in the context of the sexual revolution in full force- promiscuity was (still is) promoted, divorce still on the rise, the pro-abortion movement was gaining ground and contraception was being hailed as the hero to the villain of unwanted pregnancy and STI’s (funny how those “awful” by-products seemed to increase instead of decrease!). In his predecessor, St John XXIII’s reign, a dissenting faction in the Church pushed for the reconsideration of contraception. In response. a commission was established to research population problems as well as various means of birth control. The commission met for the last time after the closing of the Second Vatican Council and presented a report to Paul VI which suggested he might use his authority to depart from all his predecessors, whom I have mentioned so far, and approve at least some form of contraception. Well, bravo to the Chair of St Peter, the Apostolic Succession of the Church and her great Magisterium guided and sanctified by the Paraclete! Humanae Vitae was born out of such dissension and has set out the clear way to an upright and Holy marriage.
With contributions from the then Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (who was prevented from physically participating in the commission thanks to the Communists) in his document The Foundation of the Church’s Doctrine on the Principles of Conjugal Life and his book Love and Responsibility, and drawing on the wisdom of Popes Pius XI and XII, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church’s stance. That is, NFP honours the nobility of marriage, the sanctity of life and the unitive and procreative aspects of conjugal relations. Humane Vitae affirms the key points I have emphasised and goes into eloquent detail on the nature and design of marriage and the conjugal act. If you’re married, engaged or even just dating: READ IT!
Just to give you a taste, here are a couple of quotes I liked:
“This (married) love is above all fully human, a compound of sense and spirit. It is not, then, merely a question of natural instinct or emotional drive. It is also, and above all, an act of the free will, whose trust is such that it is meant not only to survive the joys and sorrows of daily life, but also to grow, so that husband and wife become in a way one heart and one soul, and together attain their human fulfillment.
It is a love which is total—that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything, allowing no unreasonable exceptions and not thinking solely of their own convenience. Whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner’s own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of himself.” (paragraph 9)
“With regard to man’s innate drives and emotions, responsible parenthood means that man’s reason and will must exert control over them.
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.
Responsible parenthood, as we use the term here, has one further essential aspect of paramount importance. It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter. In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.” (paragraph 10)
“If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles…” (paragraph 16)
WOW! Love this stuff!
Ok, so since Humane Vitae, Saint JP II extended his work into his serious of address which became the Theology of The Body. I haven’t had a chance to delve into that just yet and I think you’re probably getting the picture with all my ramblings. The basic thing is Natural Family Planning methods take advantage of NATURAL periods of infertility and requires the spouses to exercise chastity, self-mastery and thoughtfulness of each other. It also encourages spousal unity through prayer and communication when it comes to discerning God’s Will for them and their family. It honours the nobility of marriage and the conjugal act. Artificial contraception simply makes spouses constantly sexually available which throws the doors open to selfishness and holds back the whole gift of oneself. Married couples must be cautious, however, not to slip into a “contraceptive mentality” when practising NFP.
In summary, the proper use of Natural Family Planning should:
1. Always be open to life (if avoiding pregnancy, this refers to your conviction/attitude if God were to surprise you!)
2. Spacing or avoiding pregnancy indefinitely must be for grave or serious reason (physical, psychological/emotional, financial/sociological)
3. The Church asks couples to always approach it with great prayerfulness and discernment, seeking the will of God
Hope you’ve enjoyed this one as much as I have. I would recommend all the documents I’ve spoken about as reading for married couples or couples considering marriage. I’ve learned so much from them and wish I’d read it all sooner!