Should Natural Family Planning (NFP) be a practiced by every Catholic married couple?
According to some, the answer remains an emphatic “yes!”
In fact, one prominent Catholic author and speaker recently took the extreme position of calling for the debate to be over: all Catholics ought to be practicing NFP, he claims.
For those who may not know, NFP takes different forms, but they all physically track the wife’s menstrual cycle to determine when she is fertile. NFP can be used to achieve or to avoid use the conception of a child.
And according to the author of that article, every couple should make use of NFP, whether you use NFP to achieve conception or to avoid it.
As you might imagine, I am not ready to agree to end the discussion on NFP. As I wrote earlier this week, NFP ought not be practiced as a lifestyle, for the duration of marriage, by default—but rather, only when grave circumstances require it. Instead, I propose there remains validity to the practice of Providentialism, as I wrote a couple days ago, as well.
While I realize the radio host calls for the end to the debate over NFP, I am asking that we all keep the discussion alive.
WHERE HAS NFP EVER BEEN REQUIRED BY THE CHURCH?
Can someone please point out to me where the Catholic Church teaches that Natural Family Planning (NFP) ought to be practiced by every couple, in all circumstances?
Can you please quote for me the body of evidence—including Church councils, papal encyclicals, and papal speeches—where periodic continence must be the normative sexual expression of all Catholic married couples?
It doesn’t exist.
In actuality, it is simply NOT Church teaching that every couple must use NFP, whether to achieve or to avoid a pregnancy.
Instead, what we do find is the Catholic Church teaching that married couples must have a serious reason to practice NFP. Again, the Church does not require every husband and wife to chart and to observe mucus and body temperatures. The Church merely says that couples who make use of NFP require a grave reason to do so.
EXAMPLES OF CHURCH TEACHING
The Catholic Church has taught that moral use of NFP must entail possessing a grave reason to practice it. (For the full quotes, scroll to the bottom of this post.)
This is not the end-all, be-all as some make it out to be, but Humanae Vitae 16 (#1) states a serious reason is required to practice periodic continence. And even then, it states NFP is “morally permissible”—not mandated.
Catechism of the Catholic Church 2368 (#2) states “just reasons” are required. Just reasons are different than trivial reasons, as well as any reasons. This is further evidenced by the Catechism then immediately quoting Gaudium et Spes 51, which says “objective criteria” “in the context of true love” must be used in determining the reasons to use NFP.
Yet, some Catholics are under the impression periodic continence (i.e., NFP) can be used for any reason, or for no reason, whatsoever. Why would the Church place a condition, if any reason suffices?
In his address to midwives, Vicar of Christ, Pope Pius XII warns that couples who practice periodic continence (i.e., NFP) may not have the right intentions and unquestionable morality in their motives (#3).
THE PURPOSE OF MARRIAGE IS THE BEGETTING OF CHILDREN
Pope Pius XII, in that same address, also says explicitly, “Now, the truth is that matrimony, as an institution of nature, in virtue of the Creator’s will, has not as a primary and intimate end the personal perfection of the married couple but the procreation and upbringing of a new life” (emphasis added).
Gaudium et Spes (GS) 48 states plainly “matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children” (#4). Then GS 50 makes clear, “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage…”
Casti Connubii (CC) 17 says simply, “The primary end of marriage is the procreation and the education of children” (cf. CC 60 as well).
I could go on, but I will save it for a later post.
I point out all of this by means of background, in defense of my critique of the article calling for every Catholic couple to practice NFP.
MY PROVIDENTIALIST RESPONSES
I will paraphrase some aspects of this pro-NFP-for-everyone-at-all-times piece and respond.
(1) The author paints a straw man argument against priests and bishops who do not require NFP to be taught to engaged couples discerning marriage. He equates NFP to being communication and prayer about marital intimacy. NFP, to him, merely entails gathering information—which of course, is done primarily through charting the wife’s fertility cycle—to aid in this prayer. Therefore, this author claims any pastor not requiring NFP courses to couples preparing for marriage does not desire couples to communicate together and to pray about their conjugal love.
Yet, if you polled the priests who do not require NFP, do you really expect them to have as their motive wanting to shut down communication and prayer between couples? Of course not. I would counter with this:
My wife and I communicated together prior to marriage that we would use our marriage to be open to life. We discerned whether God was calling us to have children when we discerned whether to get married in the first place. After all, one of the vows of marriage remains accepting children as gifts from God.
I do not discern my vocation as husband to my wife all over again, each month. I discerned my vocation before tying the knot.
(2) The article states couples who do not practice NFP, likely without knowing it, believe they do not need to communicate together or to pray about how their sexual intimacy can help them grow in holiness.
I don’t see how Providentialism is incompatible with prayer and holiness. As one who trusts God to provide my wife and me as many children as He sees fit—no more, no less, I pray every day for my wife and children. If I am worried about getting bills paid or some temporal need, then I make that known to God. And you know what? He answers my prayer in accordance with His will.
He may not answer it how I see fit. I wish I could hit the lottery and never have to worry about finances again. But God has not allowed that to happen, because He would rather I learn virtues like patience, sacrifice, and faith.
(3) This prominent Catholic speaker then makes the stewardship argument, painting another straw man. He says if you do not chart your fertility cycle, then you are irresponsible and you are demonstrating a wasteful attitude toward the gifts God has given you, such as money, your home, and even your marriage and sexuality.
Why portray this as a false dichotomy? Why does every couple have to practice NFP in order to be prudent in use of their resources and other graces from God?
Providentialists are not saying couples are free to blow through their money and do everything without restraint. That is not just or prudent. Budgeting the family income is wise. It is also excellent to place one’s trust in God to supply. It takes a step of faith, and it is not always easy, but God appreciates when we rely on Him.
(4) The last part of this NFP-as-a-way-of-life article I take issue with is the call near the end to end the discussion on NFP and get everyone practicing it. He claims this is a sure way to foster communication and prayer, so as to bring holiness and marital intimacy.
I beg to differ. How does discussing mucus, blood, charts, and the such automatically lead to intimacy?
Further, how does sexually doing things so as to NOT have children, without grave reason—as some NFP users do and some NFP teachers endorse—communicate to God an openness to having life? How is this holy?
What’s more, why stop at engage couples? If all couples ought to be practicing NFP, does every parish need to request every couple attend workshops?
I am always reluctant to address any specific person, especially a fellow Catholic blogger, but I felt this should be done.
First, I wanted to demonstrate that some people are promoting NFP as the default lifestyle for all Catholics to practice. As demonstrated, this is not Church teaching. The Church does not require everyone to practice NFP. This mentality and teaching of NFP as the one-size-fits-all camp actually adds an undue burden on the lay faithful.
Second, I wanted to demonstrate that Providentialism has an answer to this widespread NFP promotion. There is an alternative to NFP, in other words.
I am not taking issue with NFP, in itself, and calling it intrinsically bad. It has its purpose. It is needed by some. If people use NFP to achieve pregnancy, then I commend them for trying to conceive. I just don’t think you have to use NFP, or else you’re being irresponsible, as the article claimed.
I am not saying this particular author does not have a valid reason to practice NFP. So long as he and his wife discerned a serious, objective reason to practice NFP, as the Church requires, then more power to them. Same goes for you or any one else. If you have a serious, objective reason, then so be it.
I am not the arbitrator of who should or should not use NFP. Whereas, this speaker is setting himself up to be one, by saying that every Catholic should be using NFP and saying it is irresponsible not to do so.
I do not take an issue with his practice of NFP. I am objecting to his call for all Catholic married couples, everywhere, in every circumstance to practice NFP.
Sorry, but the debate is not over.
Okay, I imagine a lot of people will want to weigh in on this one.
Where do you stand?
Please keep the comments civil.
“Small, Medium, Large, Extra-Large, What Size Is God Calling Your Family to Be”???
(1) “If there are serious reasons to space out births, reasons which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is morally permissible to take into account the natural rhythms of human fertility and to have coitus only during the infertile times in order to regulate conception without offending the moral principles which have been recalled earlier” (Humanae Vitae, 16, emphasis added).
(2) “A particular aspect of this responsibility concerns the regulation of procreation. For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2368).
(3) “The moral lawfulness of such conduct [limiting the use of the marital act to times of natural sterility] would be affirmed or denied according as to whether or not the intention to keep constantly to these periods is based on sufficient and reliable moral grounds. The sole fact that the couple do not offend against the nature of the act and that they are willing to accept and bring up the child that is born notwithstanding the precautions they have taken, would not of itself alone be sufficient guarantee of a right intention and of the unquestionable morality of the motives themselves” (Pius XII, Allocution to Midwives, October 29, 1951).
(4) “By their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown. Thus a man and a woman, who by their compact of conjugal love “are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matt. 19:ff), render mutual help and service to each other through an intimate union of their persons and of their actions. Through this union they experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it with growing perfection day by day. As a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate union and the good of the children impose total fidelity on the spouses and argue for an unbreakable oneness between them” (Gaudium et Spes, 48)