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Natural Family Planning re-examined

Letter to the Editor

04/21/2017 | Comments

Any observer will agree that large Catholic families are not as common as they were in past generations. Families of six or more children which were so frequently encountered just a few decades ago have become something of a rarity. No doubt the widespread use of artificial contraception accounts for much of this change, but even excepting those Catholics who disregard the Church’s perennial teaching on birth control, there seems to be something else at play.  

     Oftentimes, married Catholics who respect the authority of the Church but who believe they should limit their family size will make use of periodic continence, known by most of us as natural family planning or NFP. The Church, recognizing that NFP does not frustrate the purpose of the sexual faculties, permits the use of NFP. But this permission is not without stipulation. Theologians have long agreed that for the lawful use of NFP, both husband and wife must be willing to use it, that by its use neither spouse may be placed in a proximate occasion of sin, and that there must be a just cause for its use.

     We may wonder then: what precisely constitutes a just cause to use NFP? The Church has not provided us a list. Instead she advises married couples to consult their conscience. With this advice, the Church is not endorsing a relativistic morality, but is simply being practical. So rather than enumerate each of the myriad conceivable scenarios that spouses may find themselves in, she advises them to make a thorough and honest appraisal of their situation, but not without her guidance.

    In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI states that it is permissible to use NFP if there exist just reasons “which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions.” So the Church does not offer detailed guidelines, yet she is not recommending that spouses follow their own whims. Instead she teaches them the conditions, expressed in general terms, necessary for NFP’s justified use and expects them to make their decisions accordingly. But the sheer number of small Catholic families suggests that they may not be aware of these conditions.

     Certainly, it is God’s will that some parents have small families, but there is no reason to believe that the small family is the ideal. With the birth of each child comes a corresponding increase of love. Moreover, the prevalence of small Catholic families only facilitates the secularization of a world already in dire need of evangelization. This problem can be remedied, parish NFP classes being the place to effect the requisite change. Instructors would do well to emphasize the concept intimated by Pope Paul of just cause as distinct from frivolous reasons. Children are a blessing and this fact should be weighed against any potential benefits of using natural family planning.

     A new approach to teaching natural family planning would also go a long way in reviving large families.  Perhaps NFP classes should be designed, not for couples preparing for marriage, but only for those already married. Requiring engaged couples to learn NFP can give the false impression that natural family planning is essential to Christian marriage. Reserving NFP classes to persons already married, and on an as-needed basis would do much to preclude NFP being seen as the norm and would make the common attitude conform with the view of Cardinal Montini (who later became Pope Paul VI): “We may wonder if nowadays too much interest is not shown in this question (of periodic continence) and if, in this way, we are not trying rather to encourage the limitation of births than their natural coming to light. We should speak more about their increase and less about their limitation.”

     Each child is a gift from God. And while raising children is a challenge, it is a consolation to know that to those who are generous in providing souls for His Kingdom, the infinitely loving God is no less generous in giving them the graces to fulfill their duties as parents.

                David George

                Colorado Springs

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