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Natural Family Planning: The Historical Significance of NFP

Because of the vast amount of information and content I’d like to cover, this post is part one of a two part series. Please be sure to stay tuned for Part II of this post series. Thanks!

What is Natural Family Planning?

One of the more hot-button issues facing the Church today, particularly in the west, is the vast and wide use of contraceptives and birth control, and, a Church-supported method of regulating pregnancy called “Natural Family Planning” (NFP), which has been discussed, debated, and fought over for nearly two millennia.

For the Catholic Church, NFP is an umbrella term that refers to the use of a number of natural methods meant to determine the fertile and infertile times of a woman’s cycle in order to achieve, avoid or postpone pregnancy for a just cause. It’s used by Catholics across the United States and all over the world, and has even gained popularity among members of other religious beliefs for its effectiveness and for its respect for life.

It comes as no surprise that, in today’s world, the stresses of life, the uncertainty of our futures, the well-being of our families and a plethora of other concerns can overwhelm our priorities when it comes to just… living life. Instead of taking the time to reflect on our decisions and consulting with the Church and with God, we make decisions based solely on our feelings or on bad information. In other cases, the fact might be that we just don’t know what the best decision is, and so we might make decisions based on fear or concern.

As a young man who was relatively newly-wed and just had a brand-new baby girl within the same year, I was obviously interested in NFP and its purpose. My wife was concerned, despite her openness to life, that she wasn't totally prepared to have more children so soon. Initially, we had thoughts of getting settled in with our first child before we start thinking about others.

To be honest, I really didn't share that same concern. I was always open and ready to embrace God’s will. I really didn’t think about it any other way. But my wife, who is a beautiful and faithful Catholic, saw things very differently. She was utterly terrified at the notion of having another baby too soon. She would express her concerns: “What if I can’t handle another baby right now? I feel so busy already,” or “What if it isn’t safe to breastfeed while I’m pregnant?” Or even, “what will people think about the closeness in age?” The overarching concern wasn’t that she didn’t want more children, but whether it was the right time to have more children.

To be clear, neither myself nor my wife would have never considered contraceptives. It is abundantly clear in Church teaching and by the Natural Law, that “artificial” birth control was not an option. But the fact remained that we faced a decision, and it hinged on Natural Family Planning and the Church’s position on it.

After thinking about our concerns with having children too soon, I realized that this idea had a bizarre similarity to another common situation that I hear people talk about often: “I’ll get married when I’m in a good place in life,” or “I don’t want to be married until I have an excellent job and a nice house.” It’s an incredibly common thing to hear these days. It’s as if people really believe that there’s a “perfect” time to get married or that if they do get married, their life is over and they are just doomed to a prison sentence; but that’s hardly ever really the case, is it?

Society has convinced us that our personal lives, personal achievement, and personal happiness is more necessary than a fulfilling life of family and children, and most importantly, a life that aims to serve God. The similarities between “waiting” to get married and “waiting” to have children were almost uncanny. The question in both cases always seemed to be, “Is this the right time?” It’s a fair question to ask, but it’s also an important question to consider carefully.

Doctors and Fathers of the Church

The principals that the Catholic Church uses to determine the efficacy and virtue of NFP have been discussed and debated at least since the second century. The Patristic Fathers had written about the use of the “calendar” to determine the fertility of a woman a number of times, both in favor and in condemnation of the act. It was certainly, if nothing else, a hot topic even then. Clement of Alexandria, an early Church father who contributed much to the Catholic church, but unfortunately died a heretic, said, “Why, even unreasoning beasts know enough not to mate at certain times. To indulge in intercourse without intending children is to outrage nature, whom we should take as our instructor” (Clement of Alexandria, The Paedagogus or The Instructor, Book II, Chapter X, my emphasis added).

Clement seems to be implying that because animals use mating schedules to determine fertility, humans might as well. He goes on, however, to suggest that one should not be using intercourse for any purpose other than to have children. Over all, it almost seems as though Clement is saying that abstinence is the only permissible way to practice “NFP,” since other methods include having sexual relations without the express intent of having children.

At the tail end of the fourth century, the well-known, and much-loved Church father, St. Augustine, has his own thoughts on the matter. When writing to the Manichaeans, who he considered to be heretics, he said, “Is it not you who used to counsel us to observe as much as possible the time when a woman…is most likely to conceive, and to abstain from cohabitation at that time, lest the soul should be entangled in flesh? This proves that you approve of having a wife, not for the procreation of children, but for the gratification of passion. In marriage, as the marriage law declares, the man and woman come together for the procreation of children” (Augustine: The Writings Against the Manichaeans and Against the Donatists, Ch. 18, para. 65).

Here, St. Augustine is criticizing the Manichaeans for using their knowledge of a woman’s cycle to avoid pregnancy. Later in the same paragraph, he even goes so far as to say that this approach “makes the woman not a wife, but a mistress” (ibid.).

As a final example, the well-known St. Thomas Aquinas, known for his extensive writings on morality and theology, wrote about fertility in his Summa Contra Gentiles stating, “…every emission of the semen is contrary to the good of man, which takes place in a way whereby generation is impossible; and if this is done on purpose, it must be a sin.” Aquinas continues, “But if it is by accident that generation cannot follow from the emission of the semen, the act is not against nature on that account, nor is it sinful; the case of a woman being barren would be a case in point (Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 3, Chapter 122, my emphasis added).

Although St. Thomas isn’t addressing the idea of “Natural Family Planning,” or even the cycles of fertility themselves, there is much to learn from his conclusions. Here, Aquinas is telling us that, in the case of intentional “emission,” that is, ejaculation of semen, in such a way that the individual intends to render generation, or procreation, impossible is considered sinful because it goes against natural law. To paraphrase, he then says, “If, however, generation is naturally unlikely or impossible, it isn’t sinful” to perform that same act. For this, he uses a “barren” woman as an example.

The important take away from Aquinas’ words here is the similarity he draws between intent and sinfulness. Nowhere does St. Thomas Aquinas mention that the intent of rendering procreation impossible can be separated from the accidental nature of the woman’s barrenness. Aquinas would probably agree that somebody performing the marital act during a time of barrenness with the sole intent of not having children could be problematic. For example, St. Thomas would almost certainly condemn a man who, for the sole purpose of avoiding pregnancy, marries a “barren” woman. There would be no merit is such a selfish act.

Official Positions of the Church

Although a number of Church Fathers agreed on some points and disagreed on others, and even sometimes flat-out disagreed, the Church had, by the Council of Trent, finally begun to make what appeared to be official declarations on the matter of marital abstinence. The Council decreed: “If any one saith, that the Church errs, in that she declares that, for many causes, a separation may take place between husband and wife, in regard of bed, or in regard of cohabitation, for a determinate or for an indeterminate period; let him be anathema” (Council of Trent, On the Sacrament of Matrimony, Canon VIII. 1563. My emphasis added).

Some claim that this canon meant married couples could, for many causes, separate from each other in order to avoid pregnancy. But this seems doubtful because the canons that come before and after this one make no mention of procreation or of the marital act. Instead, they have to do with adultery and combatting divorce. It can be understood, then, that this canon wasn’t intended to act as an excuse to avoid pregnancy, but rather, as a way to help married couples who are struggling in their marriage by allowing them to physically or sexually separate (in a chaste manner), in order to work out the issues that they might have. That’s just my guess though. Logically, that seems to be a fair assessment based on the document as a whole.

According to EWTN, it wasn’t until 1853 that the Roman Sacred Penitentiary officially released anything on the matter of relying on the woman’s cycle to avoid pregnancy by abstaining on fertile days. When the Bishop of Amiens in France formally asked for clarification on the matter of taking advantage of infertile days to avoid pregnancy, the Sacred Penitentiary stated, “Those spoken of in the request are not to be disturbed, providing that they do nothing to impede conception.”

By the time Humanae Vitae, an encyclical promulgated by Pope Paul VI, was written, the evidence for the effectiveness of some of these methods of determining fertility had been verified. As such, Humanae Vitae had expounded on this developing teaching: “If therefore there are serious motives 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” (Humanae Vitae, 16, my emphasis added).

Earlier in the document, the encyclical states, “…responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth” (ibid., 10) The Church calls those parents who decide to have a “numerous family” generous, implying that the Church has a high regard for the prospect of life. In contrast, look at how the Church refers to those who decide to postpone childbirth. It seems to have a much more serious tone, insisting that this decision requires serious discernment and “grave motive.” The option, however, is still certainly there.

So, What Should We Do?

I could go on and on with multiple references from the Catholic Church, taking both sides of the NFP debate. I’m merely setting the tone for the second half of this journey. But, to be incredibly clear, the question I’m exploring is not whether NFP can be morally permissible. It certainly can be. The question I am seeking to help clarify is how to determine whether NFP is permissible in a given instance.

This two-part series comes on the heels of my last two posts, in which I discussed the concepts of “Primacy of Conscience” and “divine Providence.” I decided to discuss those concepts first because of their strong relevance to Natural Family planning and the way it is seen both in the eyes of the Church, and in the eyes of the faithful. Every time I engage in discussion with a person who is adamantly pro-NFP, no questions asked, the same two ideas seem to come up: That “Primacy of Conscience” will somehow answer our deepest moral questions with regard to NFP’s morality in a given situation with or without the Church’s help; and that God’s divine Providence is somehow not an option when considering what choice to make with regard to practicing NFP.

Both of these concepts are real teachings of the Church, but have somehow been mixed up and misunderstood. Divine Providence should be what guides us when the decision seems to be impossible, it is the playing out of God’s will for us. As for conscience… well, our conscience should be well-informed and guided by the Catholic Church rather than simply serving as a “shot in the dark” with little-to-no regard for authentic Church teaching.

It’s important to turn into Church teaching when trying to determine right or wrong decisions. Especially when these decisions are directly related to the founding principal of the Sacrament of Matrimony. We can’t ignore our duty to inform ourselves about the teachings of the Church.

This has been the first part of the Natural Family Planning Series: Natural Family Planning: The Historical Significance of NFP.

Please remember to sign up so we can let you know when Part II: Natural Family Planning: Discerning God's Plan for Our Family is up!

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