Francis Philips made some excellent points in her Catholic Herald blogpost this week, asking whether the Church has succumbed to an anti-family culture and reminding Catholics that they should not feel the need to limit their family size.
She quotes one Christopher Gawley who posits that while the Church abhors the small-family contraceptive mentality, it does not present the true message of Humane Vitae, namely the obligation of married couples to have children and not to limit their family size. According to Gawley, this is because the Church does not teach NFP properly, citing it as the natural alternative to artificial contraception and thus couples fall into the contraceptive mindset, using NFP as a form of contraception in order to avoid pregnancy.
That’s certainly a criticism that has cropped up a lot in my combox over the years, with non-Catholics claiming that NFP is merely semantics or a form of sophistry, NFP it is claimed, is just another form of contraception. To be fair, one cannot blame the non-catechised for taking this view, it can be confusing, especially considering that NFP is even described as a form of contraception by the NHS. We Catholics can also play into this perspective, when trying to persuade others of the efficacy and morality of NFP compared to other forms of contraception. There can be little doubt, that religious principles aside, there are compelling reasons for a couple to use NFP, which is entirely natural, leaves no ecological footprint and does much to enhance the relationship between husband and wife on both a physical, psychological and for Catholics, spiritual level.
Which is why we should probably attempt a Catholic boycott of the phrase and instead plump for something along the lines of NFA, Natural Fertility Awareness which is the essence behind NFP for Catholics. It’s not simply about planning one’s family in a utilitarian fashion, but a couple together monitoring a woman’s fertility and every month making prayerful decisions as to the best course of action.
I do not agree that the Church is implicitly buying into the contraceptive mentality by the way it teaches and presents NFP, because let’s be honest here, sadly many practicing Catholics are using contraception and actually see no problem with this, such as for example, the former editor of the Catholic Herald, Cristina Odone. The problem is not, in my experience, that the Church is not teaching NFP or Humanae Vitae correctly, the problem is that it isn’t really being taught at all. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I think I’ve heard it alluded to once during a homily over the past five years. I once spoke at a neighbouring parish on the theology of NFP, together with a practitioner who did the mechanics and once I’d got over the embarrassment of telling a group of engaged and co-habiting couples that they ought to consider chastity, what was clear was that none of them had ever really considered the doctrine on contraception, let alone the reasons behind it or even putting it into practice.
We are really fooling ourselves if we believe that the reason that Catholics are having small families is because they are misusing NFP. those Catholics who do use it, are the ones who fully understand it and tend to have larger families anyway. In the absence of stats, it’s impossible to make generalisations, but the priority should not be Catholics with say two or three children, who may be using NFP with a contraceptive mentality.
The expert moral theologian in this area, Janet Smith, says that often, the graveness of the valid reasons for avoiding pregnancy can be overstated. I would tend to agree, because what constitutes ‘grave and serious’ reasons is entirely subjective and depends upon the individual couple. While childbearing shouldn’t be postponed for trivial social reasons such as planning a holiday for example, it is totally valid for a woman who has given birth in the last year, for example, to use NFP/NFA to space out her children and give her body adequate time to recover before the next pregnancy. That may not come under the life-threatening implications of ‘grave’ but so long as she doesn’t postpone indefinitely and the decision is taken carefully and prayerfully, it isn’t one that should attract censure. Janet Smith suggests that ‘just’ reasons would be a more suitable phrase.
Humane Vitae admittedly uses the terms ‘serious’ and ‘grave’, as follows:
“If we look further to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who, guided by prudent consideration and generosity, elect to accept many children. Those are also to be considered responsible, who, for serious reasons [seriis causis] and with due respect for moral precepts, decide not to have another child either for a definite or an indefinite amount of time.” (HV10)
Certainly, there may be just reasons [justae causae] for spacing offspring; these may be based on the physical or psychological condition of the spouses, or may be based on external factors.” Further on it states the spouses may have worthy and weighty justifications (argumenta . . . honesta et gravia); defensible reasons (probabiles rationes); and just reasons (iustae rationes) for limiting their family size.” (HV16)
So in planning family size, a couple needs to think about ALL their commitments, to each other, to their existing children, to other family members who may be dependents, such as an elderly parent, basically, the decision has to be defensible, and not selfish, but directed towards a good beyond their own comfort. There are a multitude of good reasons why a couple may decide to use NFP and their decision to do so should be between themselves, taking into account Church teaching on the matter, based on prayerful discernment. The external factors referred to in HV16, obviously refers to compelling financial and social reasons, and can in themselves be a defensible reason, i.e it does not need to be a matter of life and death.
Gaudium et Spes 50 has a passage which is also helpful in discerning what constitutes a just decision.
“takes into consideration their own good and the good of their children already born or yet to come, an ability to read the signs of the times and of their own situation on the material and spiritual level, and finally, an estimation of the good of the family, of society, and of the Church.”
On the matter of how many children one should have, John Paul II had something interesting to say:
“The family is an institution created by procreation within the framework of marriage. It is a natural community, directly dependent on the parents for its existence and functioning. The parents create the family as a complement to and extension of their love. To create a family means to create a community, since the family is a social unit or else it is not a family. To be a community it must have a certain size. This is most obvious in the context of education. For the family is an educational institution within the framework of which the personality of a new human being is formed. If it is to be correctly formed it is very important that this human being should not be alone, but surrounded by a natural community. We are sometimes told that it is easier to bring up several children together than an only child, and also that two children are not a community – they are two only children. It is the role of the parents to direct their children’s upbringing, but under their direction the children educate themselves because they develop within the framework of a community of children, a collective of siblings.”
So ideally, a family should constitute more than two children.
It seems to me that getting too hung up on the grave and serious nature of reasons for avoiding childbirth, ignores the actual teaching of Humane Vitae. I also think that to do so, encourages us to fall into the trap of judging others on the basis of their family size. There’s many a time that I look at some of these marvellous Catholic families with 6 or more children wistfully and wish I’d met my husband when in my twenties so we could have got going a lot earlier and had plenty more, but such is life. We’ve not been doing too badly in the reproductive stakes, to put it mildly.
But we shouldn’t be too keen to judge a family’s Catholicity on the basis of family size. A family may only have one or two children for reasons that are unknown to the outsider and could well be a source of pain for them. A small Catholic family is not a scandalous situation and neither should we hector those who prayerfully chose to employ NFP to achieve or avoid pregnancy, the two being different sides of the same coin.
Ultimately if a faithful Catholic couple is using NFP then they are still accepting and participating in God’s plan for creation. NFP/NFA accepts that no method of pregnancy avoidance, bar total abstinence is 100%. It is hugely unlikely that such a couple would then opt for abortion or reject an unplanned pregnancy. Practicing NFP constantly reminds one that this is always a possibility which is why NFP encourages spouses to care for and take responsibility for each other.
We should not berate those who use it in good conscience, procreation is one of the missions of marriage but not the sole mission, there are other ways of building the kingdom, the church does not treat children as a moral good to be pursued at the expense of all other moral goods. Gaudium et Spes 50 suggests that having a large family would be the generous thing to do, but also states that it is up to couples to decide.
The subject of children and family size is a fraught one to which we must be sensitive. I’ve been hurt by thoughtless comments from well-meaning Catholics, concerning the sex of my children, or suggestions that I ought to be trying for more to set a good example, when in fact we had very sound reasons to be thinking about avoiding. Tip, the last thing one should say to a woman with a newborn baby girl staggering into Church following her third cesarian is “oh what a pity, when are you going to try again”?!
Using NFP takes courage in this day and age, where most have us have been conditioned into wanting to and believing that we can control every aspect of our lives, including childbearing. NFP is liberating and empowering it paradoxically puts a woman in charge of her own fertility (far more so than artificial methods of contraception) but with that liberation comes a submission to God’s will. One innately understands that ‘accidents’ can happen and when they do, you are in a far better position to be able to make the heroic sacrifice required.
There is still so much work to be done in terms of catechesis and educating the faithful on this matter, far better to evangelise on the spiritual goods and moral imperatives of NFP as opposed to be hammering home the message that Catholics should expect to have as many children as humanly possible, continuing to reproduce like rabbits until their uterus falls out.
Yes, generosity is expected and required and this is something that we should be passing onto our children by word and example. But having a large family is not the only way in which one can exercise generosity and perhaps it’s a case of carrot and stick. Once the faithful have been convinced of the good of NFP, constant reminders of the grave and serious reasons to avoid may well become superfluous. Once you’ve understood the teaching in its entirety, not simply the logistics or mechanics, then the rest follows on holistically.
But berating those for using NFP to avoid in good conscience, or discouraging discussion of using NFP to plan a family responsibly, is not the way to go, particularly for those encountering these concepts for the first time, which sadly seems to be a not insignificant proportion of the faithful.
Upon reflection it occurred to me that Christopher Gawley, the writer referred to is American, where it is normal pastoral practice for couples to receive NFP instruction as part of their marriage preparation. Perhaps Gawley is justified in critiquing the way this is taught if it only focuses upon the method itself as opposed to the underlying theology. This isn’t the problem in the UK where qualified NFP practitioners are in short supply and NFP is barely mentioned in many parishes or schools.
I still feel that faithful couples practicing NFP should be treated in good faith. It is highly likely that an orthodox couple who are using NFP to avoid pregnancy or space their children will be sufficiently motivated and well informed to understand their obligations in the light of Church teaching.