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By Jay Boyd, Ph.D.
The USCCB has announced its annual "NFP Awareneness Week," from July 19–25, with a theme that seems a bit over the top:
Natural Family Planning
Good for the body. Great for the soul!
"Celebrate and reverence God's vision of human sexuality."
Discover Natural Family Planning
Yes, I know NFP is a licit means of spacing births. Still, I object to the above characterization of NFP. In particular, is NFP really "great for the soul"? How so?! While NFP is licit, it is not virtuous. There are limits, and virtue demands that we consider the limits. The Church is very clear in her teaching that NFP, while licit, should be only used for "serious" or "just" reasons.
Unfortunately, "just reason" has come to mean "just about any reason" to space births. The Church does, indeed, permit NFP for just causes, just as it permits capital punishment for just causes. There can be just reasons for spacing births, and there can be just reasons to execute a criminal. These reasons should be judged, however, in light of the awesome realities before us. "I want to finish working on my degree" doesn't cut it as a just reason for choosing when to procreate with God a potential new citizen of Heaven. Nor should we execute someone simply because it has not been defined as intrinsically evil to do so. There must be just reasons judged in light of true justice.
NFP is licit, but it is certainly not required: The Church does not teach that couples must use NFP as a matter of "responsible parenthood." Nevertheless, the USCCB has a detailed document concerning standards for diocesan NFP ministry. Apart from mentioning in a very general way that everyone should be educated as to "Catholic morality," the document does not address the very important condition that serious reasons are required for the practice of NFP.
Does the USCCB think that every couple who gets married will have serious reasons for using NFP? Every couple?! Statistically, that is unlikely, unless of course, "just reason" really means "just any reason." Failing to address "serious reasons" or "just cause" is simply acquiescing to the pressures of secular society to limit family size and enjoy sex all the while.
By failing to give examples of "just reasons," and by failing to emphasize the importance of those reasons in choosing to use NFP, the USCCB does the faithful a disservice: It becomes all too easy to condone and even encourage NFP for a reason that basically fits into the category of "I'm not ready for a child right now, but I'm ready for sex." It would be better to just blush and move on, rather than try to make this sound responsible, even holy.
When there are serious reasons to avoid conception, there is the obvious option of abstinence. With one noteworthy exception, no one has ever become pregnant from abstinence. We should be embarrassed, or at least humbled, at the need to figure out a way to have sex and avoid pregnancy. Since we are all infected with original sin, concupiscence is a fact of life; but it's not something we should encourage! In the life of what saint was "a great sex life" a priority?
Many couples say that using NFP changed their marriage, helped them grow in holiness, saved the woman's health, etc. I don't doubt their stories or their sincerity. But there are also stories about trusting God's providence that are equally inspiring. Michael Malone, in The Case Concerning Catholic Contraception, said:
I also happen to have seven healthy and happy siblings from a mother whose doctors warned her explicitly, with each and every pregnancy, that she and every one of her offspring would certainly suffer death because of a serious blood disorder (Rh incompatibility).
Do you suppose the Almighty does not know what He was doing, allowing such souls to be born and to live in such "dangerous" and "intolerable" conditions? Thank God my mother didn't listen!
In a 2003 article, Fr. Brian W. Harrison defended the liceity of NFP, but acknowledged the lack of proper catechesis on "serious reasons" (emphases in original):
[A]mong those promoting NFP, there is sometimes a one-sidedness or lack of balance. Married or engaged couples are often taught the legitimacy and the technique … of NFP, but with little or no mention of that other part of the Church's teaching which insists that couples need "just reasons" … for using NFP if they wish to be free from blame before God. (Indeed, quite frankly, I think we really need now from the Magisterium some less vague and more specific guidelines as to what actually constitutes a "just reason.") Very often, such couples hear nothing at all of the fact that "Sacred Scripture and the Church's teaching see in large families a sign of God's blessing and the parents' generosity”" (CCC no. 2373). Still less frequently are they informed that, according to the Magisterium, merely temporal or worldly considerations are in themselves inadequate criteria for deciding when NFP can be justified: "Let all be convinced that human life and the duty of transmitting it are not limited by the horizons of this life only: their true evaluation and full significance can be understood only in reference to man's eternal destiny" (Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, no. 51, cited in CCC no. 2371). Taking into account the whole spectrum of biblical and Church teaching in this area, I personally think that we need to bring back the word "grave" into the discourse about family planning. That is, we should be teaching that the temporal or worldly problems to be anticipated by another pregnancy and birth (mainly of health or poverty) need to be really grave in character before a married couple is entitled to conclude that they have a "just reason" for them to use NFP … .
I think Fr. Harrison has a very good point there — one that the USCCB has missed. NFP may be a licit means of birth control, but it is not one that should be celebrated or encouraged.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Dr. Boyd's book "Natural Family Planning: Trojan Horse in the Catholic Bedroom?"
Read ChurchMilitant.com's resource page on NFP here.