Natural Family Planning: Discerning God's Plan for the Family
If a Catholic person who accepts all of the teachings of the Church is discerning the use of NFP, I would imagine they would be open and receptive not only to Church teaching, but Logic and Reason, and God’s providence, to come to a sounder decision and to make peace with that decision. It’s with this assumption I make these points, from a position of reason.
A Look at Some Scenarios
As I mentioned just above, I presume that a fellow Catholic, who loves the Church, is ready and willing to accept all aspects of official Church teaching. I also assume, however, that because of the vagueness of some Church teaching, we can come to a logical and reasonable conclusion together based on other Church teachings and based on the Natural Order of things.
When the question of “just causes” arises, that is, reasons to avoid pregnancy that are considered to be legitimate, some particular situations that people find themselves in come to mind. One example of a “just cause” could be the instance of serious illness or potential illness on the part of the mother, because of which a pregnancy would be detrimental to her health, and would thereby cause unnecessary harm to her and would decrease the potentiality of the child coming to full-term. In this first case, the family might discern to use NFP because of this “serious matter.” Because of that given illness, the mother would not only be endangering herself but she could also potentially endanger any child that might be conceived.
Another popular example of what could be considered “just cause” might involve a family who, for some reason, literally can’t afford another child because some aspect of their welfare is not sufficient to support another child. This is particularly the case when a given family can’t feed, house, clothe, or otherwise care for an additional child. In this case, it could also be determined, on the part of the family, to use NFP because of this serious matter.
Among these two examples in which NFP could be used, and definitely could be discerned, there are many other examples that I couldn't possibly address for two big reasons: First, because I'm not a moral theologian, and therefore, I really don't have much license to say what is right or wrong subjectively. Second, because circumstances can be as unique as the people who are affected by them, there are more possible reasons to use NFP than I could ever cover in a single post. These are merely examples to paint the picture.
There are, of course, reasons that people might use NFP that are not considered “just causes.” The most obvious case would be one in which a married couple, for no particular reason, decide not to have children, either indefinitely or for a certain amount of time. This could include, among other things:
Married couples who don't want children.
Married couples who don't want the responsibility that comes with having children.
Married couples who are afraid to fail at parenthood (understandable, but not a reason in itself to avoid pregnancy).
Married couples who never intend to have children.
Married couples who intend to impede the amount of children they can have (again, for no reason aside from itself).
Argument from Natural Order
What is the difference between these circumstances? Well, for starters, in the two examples in support of NFP's discernment, NFP could be considered because they are already in the thick of it so-to-speak. If a family is in a dire situation that would inescapably put the family and their future children in harm’s way, it might be irresponsible to subject more children to that life, simply because they don’t have a chance to begin with. Essentially, purposefully getting pregnant with full knowledge of these dangers could be setting their future child up for failure. For this reason, using NFP in a situation like this could be considered responsible and even necessary.
In the other examples, however, the family has no particular reason to use NFP. It might be that they simply have a fear of the future, and what the future might bring; or could even come from a position of selfishness. Perhaps they just don’t want the responsibility. In cases like these, it would probably not be prudent to avoid pregnancy from occurring simply because of some unjustified fear, and certainly not because of selfish reasons.
In the same way that it could be irresponsible to have children for the sake of having children, it could be irresponsible to avoid pregnancy for the sake of avoiding it. In other words, it isn't good to force pregnancy upon ourselves, and have too many children, any more than it's good to prevent it without good reason. We must, at least to some extent, rely on the Natural Order of things to determine our body's, and family's, readiness for children.
Argument from Reason
As I had mentioned in Part I of this series, my wife was utterly terrified to end up pregnant again too soon. Our daughter was only 3 months old, and already, my wife was showing signs of fertility (although she didn’t turn out to be fertile quite yet). She was afraid to get pregnant again despite the fact that we were living reasonably well. We had food, we made the bills, we even had pleasantries like TV and internet. Her concern was whether she had the capacity to take care of another baby, it was not whether she wanted another child, and I certainly understood that concern.
Now, she’s managed to work through some of these concerns because of one very important concept: God’s divine Providence. There was no way for us to justify using NFP because a grave matter would imply our objective inability to raise more children, it would not imply the subjective fear or doubt in our ability to raise other children.
Think about it, does it sound more appropriate to say, “I was more concerned about myself,” or “I was more concerned about my family?” Surely, when given the option to use NFP for a “just cause,” we should assume that it ought to used for the good of the family. Why else would we avoid pregnancy as Catholics?
It’s no mystery that we are, by the Sacrament of Matrimony, obliged to be open to life. In fact, the Church’s position on the procreative nature of Marriage has remained extremely firm for her entire history. St. Augustine makes it clear that “the man and woman come together for the procreation of children” (see NFP: Part 1). The Catechism tells us that “by its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring” (CCC 1652, my emphasis added). If children aren’t one of the prime goals, if not the prime goal of marriage, why does the Church refer to children as the “crowning glory” of the Institution of Marriage (ibid.)?
Further, it wasn’t even until 1930, in the encyclical Casti Connubii, promulgated by Pope Pius XI, that the “unitive” nature of conjugal love was given recognition as an important, although secondary, purpose of sexual intercourse. This means that, although the unitive act of conjugal love is incredibly important, it is still only second to the primary function of sex, which is the purpose of procreation.
If that’s the case, then how can one determine that sexual intercourse, simply by reason of desire, could be used in any other fashion without first determining the reason for using NFP to be a grave matter? Would it not be considered contrary to the fundamental teachings of our Catholic faith to assume our own desires are sufficient to avoid pregnancy? This would sound an awful lot like the “Primacy of Conscience,” which is in itself is not sufficient unless it consults with Church teaching and natural law.
This means that when determining the permissibility of NFP, it’s important for the user to strongly consider the teachings of the Church. With reference to the use of NFP, the Catechism states, “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” (CCC 2368, my emphasis added). This means that one cannot use NFP simply because of their own selfish desires. This would include, but is not limited to, avoiding pregnancy simply because one doesn’t want any more kids. This can also be extended to say we shouldn’t “wait” after marriage for the "right time" to procreate simply because we “want to have our fun first,” as might be the case for some.
And the Conclusion?
Surely, if we are to assume the Catechism is speaking correctly (and we are), responsible parenthood is not limited to those people who are already parents. Indeed, this condition extends to those people who are married and have the potential to become parents. Why? Responsible parenthood would also necessitate embracing our responsibility to become parents. That would suggest that conforming to the “generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood” involves the openness and willingness to become responsible parents.
The implication is that avoiding pregnancy or spacing children by practicing abstinence or NFP (or both), simply for the sake of preventing children cannot be permitted. The reason has to do with intent. Like actions, by which we can be judged, God will, among other things, look into our hearts, and ask us our intentions. This is why sin cannot be committed if the offender was not aware it was a sin. The sin is objectively evil, but the person who commits it is ultimately responsible based on his intent.
The danger of relying on concepts like “conscience” and not on concepts like divine Providence is that we can become complacent in the way we make our moral decisions. It was never, and never will be, the intent of the Church to leave us to our own devices when it comes to making moral decisions. It is for this reason that we must always seek the truth, and not simply rely on our personal feelings and desires. Perhaps if my cause doesn’t seem “just” enough, it simply isn’t. In that case, and in any other case, if I can’t definitively determine God’s will, I have no choice but to joyfully and hopefully rely on God’s providence. After all, I’d much rather have God’s will done unto me than my own. As the saying goes, If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.