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Archive for the ‘NFP’ Category

4 years after broaching the topic on Sunday Morning Live, the BBC today once again went for this discussion on their Sunday Morning Live Show.

There was nothing new to bring to the table, other than once again, it was an opportunity to berate the Catholic Church for not bringing her teaching ‘up to date’ (the truths of Christ and His Church are timeless, they do not blow the way of the prevailing wind) and for people to argue why contraception is so desperately needed while representatives of the Church defend themselves.

The BBC rang me about the show earlier in the week, but thanks to having appeared only two weeks previously where I discussed abortion, and a previous appearance on this subject, I was out of the running but was heartily glad to be able to recommend Obianuju Ekeocha and Clare Short, who the BBC decided to run with. It’s great to see real-life Catholics who love the Church defend these issues, and it’s pretty hard for anyone to disagree with an African woman who has on the ground knowledge and experience of these issues and who is in the process of filming a documentary about this very subject.

You never get much time to be able to put forward your points in any real detail, however I would note the following which didn’t come up in debate.

1) In a recent Com Res Poll in the UK 65% of respondents strongly opposed UK overseas aid money going towards the provision of abortion overseas. The teaching of the Catholic Church has absolutely nothing to do with this.  The UK has not been a Catholic country for over 500 years.

2) Melinda Gates has expressed a hope that the Catholic Church will change her position on contraception, however what she omits is that the term ‘birth control’ is now being used to cover both provision of contraception and abortion. While most people might think of birth control as being to do with contraception, the reality is that the term is used to encompass abortion. This was admitted by Ann Furedi, CEO of BPAS, the UK’s largest abortion clinic, who only last week said that over 50% of their clients who present for abortion were using some form of contraception and that abortion must be considered as a form of birth control. 

3) Therefore if we are talking about introducing birth control into Africa, this also means provision of abortion, out of which providers are sure to make a pretty penny, especially if they are funded by the likes of Melinda Gates, government-funded direct aid and NGO’s. Abortion clinics will claim that they are providing birth control both in the form of abortions and devices to prevent pregnancies but as in the UK, the bulk of their profits will come from abortion provision.

4) If well over 50% of women who have an abortion are already attempting to use some form of contraception, then clearly it is failing, therefore by introducing this into Africa to meet some form of pre-determined need, you are, very conveniently, creating abortion demand, by setting up an unrealistic expectation about prevention of pregnancy and potentially encouraging women to expose themselves to more risk. Are women in Africa properly informed about the potential failure rate of various devices, or indeed any potential health risks?

5) There is absolutely no point in providing contraception, unless you are going to provide basic infrastructure, such as food, clean water and sanitation, skilled birth attendants (for those women who do want to have as many children as they choose), medication, roads, telecommunications, education and opportunities. Stopping a woman from having lots of babies doesn’t mean that the next day that she is going to go out and smash the glass ceiling, particularly if she’s neither got the skills or education to apply for a job, roads to travel on, someone to look after any existing children and presuming any such jobs exist. From this outsider’s perspective, this looks to be all about stopping poor African women from breeding as a matter of first importance without actually giving women the tools that they need to improve their lives.

6) What provision is being put in place for African women who may have fertility or other reproductive health issues which prevent them from conceiving, aside from an exploitative IVF, only available for the super-rich?

In the UK, where we have abundant access to contraception, over 185,000 abortions take place every year, mainly due to social reasons and a strain of antibiotic resistant gonorrhoea is rapidly spreading across the country.

Neither of these things are happening because people are ignorant that sex can result in pregnancy or infection, but because people mistakenly believe that they can reduce the risks to almost zero and even if the worst happens, there’s always a cure, either in the form of abortion or medicine. Believing that you have to be ignorant or foolish to experience unplanned pregnancy or contract an STI, is a far more comfortable narrative than the idea that sexual libertinism is inherently unsafe and exposes you to unnecessary risk.

The only reason that people are so desperate for the Church to change her teachings in this area is to validate their own beliefs and lifestyle and to stop people from being influenced by their religious beliefs when choosing not to adopt contraception.

The acid test here, is given the recent advance in technology which allows for women to track their basal temperature and other fertility markers, and predict with a high degree of accuracy their fertile periods, does Melinda Gates and co consider this a valid form of avoiding pregnancy, and will they be making it available for women in Africa, in order that they can make a genuinely informed choice? We know that many women experience gruelling side effects and are unable to tolerate synthetic contraception. Is this being explained to them and what provision is made to monitor the long term health of women on contraceptives, especially if they don’t have easy access to a clinic? And if African women are not being offered ways of naturally monitoring their fertility, especially as they are the most environmentally friendly method, why is this?

Who could have the most to gain from shovelling pills, synthetic hormones and various pharma devices (which may or may not work) with little oversight or supervision, into poor women in the developing world? Just like who has the most to gain from promoting and weaning African infants onto powdered infant formula? The answer in both cases, is certainly not women and children themselves and we should be thankful that the Catholic church has no part in it.

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reversed rabbit

Perhaps his advisors had informed him that the rabbit comments had the unintended effect of upseting significant swathes of the faithful, or perhaps he had even read Joseph Shaw’s blog, but I suspect that many Catholics will have been mollifed by Francis’ General Audience this morning in which he extolled the virtues of large families in what could be termed a reverse-rabbit.

“It gives me consolation and hope to see so many large families that welcome children as a true gift from God,”

“I have heard it said that families with many children and the birth of many children are among the causes of poverty. It seems to me a simplistic opinion. I would say that the main cause of poverty is an economic system that has removed the person from the center and has placed there the god of money, an economic system that always excludes children, the elderly, the youth.”

So keep calm and make babies! But the whole affair raises some interesting points.

The example of the woman facing her eighth sections being repeatedly held up as an example of irresponsible parenting made uncomfortable reading. If the Catholic Church wishes to demonstrate her female-friendly credentials then the supreme pontiff criticising a woman for her reproductive choices, really isn’t the best way to go about it.

That was really the thing that made me baulk, because actually we do not know anything about this lady and pastoral sensitivity ought to dictate that delicate conversations of this nature ought to remain private. Admittedly we do not know the context of the exchange whether or not the lady was a visitor to Rome, or if she was seeking some advice or affirmation from the Pope, but to put it bluntly I would be none too chuffed if following a conversation with any cleric, they then used it as a preaching opportunity, holding me up as a negative example, in such a way that I would be bound to hear about it. Being held up as a paragon of irresponsible parenthood for attempting to follow Church teaching in front of the world’s media, isn’t the compassionate or merciful response which Francis so often urges.

The other problematic aspect of this particular lady is that we know nothing of her circumstances. As Tanya, from ‘larger family life’ noted some time ago, the number of sections each woman can have varies enormously and is entirely dependent on individual case history. There is no set number. Medics won’t advise this route, because all other things being equal, a cesarian section poses a greater risk to mother and child than a natural delivery and the more cesarians you have, so the risk of injury to the mother increases. Every section increases the amount of scar tissue that surgeons need to slice through, along with the risk of multiple adhesions whereby the internal organs stick together and with each section the risk of uncontrolled blood loss increases. The risk may only be slight, but it would be irresponsible and misleading to claim that all women can happily have 7 or 8 sections with no problem.

Actually what the case of the woman with 7 sections demonstrates is the wisdom inherent in Church teaching on responsible parenting and family planning. The Church does not specifically lay down a number of sections after which it is permissible to use permanent abstinence, because this will differ on a case by case basis. Some women would be advised to stop after one, others after 5 or 6. What we are called to do is discern what the Holy Spirit might be saying to us, taking individual circumstances into account.

So this woman could be amongst those who have excellent blood vessels, strong muscles and minimal scarring. She might well have made an informed decision to have another baby. Or perhaps she had an unplanned pregnancy, despite assiduous charting. Without a fuller knowledge, who are we to judge?

When Francis said he chided her, I can’t take too much umbrage, because charity must dictate that he did know the circumstances, although it’s not clear what he hoped to achieve by such a scolding – locking the stable door after the horse has bolted is the phrase that comes to mind.

When I announced my pregnancy on FaceBook a Catholic priest didn’t admonish but asked whether or not I wanted all these children and suggested that we ought to consider abstinence in the future. I didn’t take it awry but as a sign of paternal concern because obviously we do have a lot on our plates as a family. But were he to have held me up as a public example of irresponsible parenting, due to having lots of children close together, yes I would have been extremely peeved.

Whereas Dr Shaw thinks that Francis used an extreme example with which no-one could disagree, I am not so sure. Multiple sections are becoming the norm these days, there are whole internet forums devoted to the topic and when I gave birth to our fourth child, a lady in the bay opposite had delivered her seventh child by section. Aside from needing an emergency blood transfusion, she seemed none the worse for it.

The thing that I think Francis was touching on, is that there is a lot of shaming which goes on within Catholic communities, as well as outside of them, in terms of family size. I’ve had the examples of women who have had 7 cesarian sections and been totally fine thrown at me more times than you could mention, in an attempt to justify why I am being a wimp, stopping after child number 5. Equally, as I said in my previous blog, I’ve had people tell me albeit sympathetically, that they have had 12, or refer to their Great Auntie Bernadette who had a similar number. When I limped into the Easter vigil Mass in April 2011, 3 hours after being discharged from hospital, still bearing the gauze and tape from the recently removed cannula, proudly clutching my 4 day old baby, people peered at the bundle, saw a glimpse of pink and said “oh well, never mind, you can start trying again soon” while I wept into the cardboard candle holder. A similar scenario happened with baby number 4 and again this time, no sooner does someone learn that you are pregnant or the sex of your unborn child, then the questions and opinions start pouring forth about whether or not you ought to have another.

This isn’t confined to Catholic congregations: family, friends, mums at the school gate believe they need to proffer an unsolicited opinion on whether or not your womb should be occupied for another time, and often in extremely hurtful terms. I had to bite my tongue when a school secretary impertinently joked that we ought to buy a TV and said amusingly “oh you do know there’s a special pill you can take to stop that” on spying bump number 3 or was it 4 – they all seem to merge into one! Or when a dad jocularly said “oh you’re churning them out” and then a mother said “but I saw you on TV defending it. At least you scrub up well”. Aaaaargh!

I guess people do this because it’s part of the rich tapestry of life, communities are always interested in their neighbours’ affairs and feel they have a right to helpfully comment.

But the fact that some Catholic church-goers do feel the need to shame or play child top-trumps with each other, the more children one has being a sign of devoutness, piety or attempting to claim a better place in the hierarchy, shows that there was an element of truth in what Francis says. I don’t know whether or not as Joseph Shaw claims, he was attempting to wrong-foot those who attack the Church (and I am in agreement with some of what Dr Shaw says on this) but it is clear that dutifully having children out of a misplaced sense of obligation, because you think that is what Catholics ‘do’ is not acting as full co-operators with God, nor is it likely to engender a healthy spiritual life, but rather foster a sense of resentment and disillusionment.

Having multiple children to validate your personal identity or prove self-worth may not be as serious or even as widespread as the contraceptive mentality, but it still exists as a problem. The temptation to judge other people on a smaller family size can prove particularly hurtful for those who would have liked to have had more, but have been prevented from doing so, from circumstances beyond their control. Equally there are those who regard large families with a mixture of pity and irritation.

The other issue highlighted by ‘rabbit-gate’ is whether or not responsible parenthood is relatively new, only coming in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and perhaps that the Church ought to stick to her centuries old doctrine that couples ought to have as many children as possible unless there are sufficiently ‘grave and serious’ reasons not to do so.

Grave and serious is relative – one person’s serious is another’s trivial, which is why couples are left to discern for themselves, this really is a case of ‘who are we to judge?’ Furthermore the Church has been addressing the issue of contraception and population control since it first came to the fore in the nineteenth century. Casti Connubii issued in  1930 may not have been as detailed as Humanae Vitae or Gaudium et Spes but it did nonetheless spell out that parents’ rights to reproduce, carried accompanying responsibilities, such as education. Prior to that, the Roman Penitentiary and the Holy Office repeatedly outlined that contraception was impermissible and suggested periods of abstinence instead.

Contraception has been addressed by the Church from the outset of it being suggested as desirable public policy in the nineteenth century and the Church has always accepted that some couples may need to avoid children.

Humanae Vitae and Gaudium et Spes were not wrong, or misguided but addressed the fact that widespread, seemingly effective contraceptive methods were becoming commonplace and proposed how Catholics could respond to the challenges of the sexual revolution while remaining true to the Magisterium. Catherine of Sienna’s parents may well have had 26 children, but times were very different then, as was child mortality. More is known now about how the human reproductive system actually functions. While it’s extremely noble to die in childbirth, whether or not one ought to be encouraged to actively pursue this path in the course of sanctity, is another matter entirely. Most confessors would probably suggest not, especially if there are multiple existing children. As we now know how the the reproductive system functions, even more so than in the ’60s and have developed highly effective systems of fertility monitoring (though modern medicine must do more to investigate causes of infertility as opposed to circumnavigate them via IVF), we ought then to use this knowledge as a God-given gift to with which He has armed us to counter contraception.

Jesus might well have chided the woman who had seven sections, but He is the only one who is allowed to do this. What rabbit-gate has demonstrated is that there is still an inordinate amount of ignorance and unpleasant judgementalism occurring both inside and outside of Catholic circles, all of which has stemmed from decades of non-existent catechesis.

Those who do practice periodic or permanent abstinence ought not to feel ashamed or fear the judgement of others,  but if they state they have no plans for another baby for a few years or ever again, they need to set an example and be clear about why this is the case as well as why they reject contraception.

If more regular church-goers knew precisely what the Church teaches and why, we’d have less reliance on impromptu papal pronouncements and far less judgementalism towards others, whatever the size of their families. Perhaps that’s what all of us need to work on instead of fostering a sense of righteous defensiveness about our own situations – myself included.

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I’ve been meaning to revisit the topic of NFP or, as I would prefer to call it, NFA and Joseph Shaw has provided me with the perfect opportunity, with a blogpost critiquing this rather natty little video, promoting the benefits of NFP, as opposed to conventional contraception.

First off, I think Catholics need to stop referring to NFP (Natural Family Planning) and instead refer to NFA – Natural Fertility Awareness. The semantics here are important: the former term implies a contraceptive mindset, validating the secular mindset that every family needs to be meticulously planned in terms of timing and number of children, whereas Natural Fertility Awareness is more accurate in terms of the (more often than not) Catholic mindset of those who adopt this attitude towards their sex lives.

Unlike the secular rigidity of the term Family Planning, favoured by our state health agencies, the phrase Natural Fertility Awareness conveys something of the fluidity and indeed flexibility, of the process. Moreover one does not need to be sexually active in order to monitor one’s own fertility and I’m a great advocate of young women (and indeed young men) being versed in the basic principles, before they may actually need to practice it.

There is nothing inherently immoral about teaching young women how to be aware of and chart their individual fertility – the process takes a few months to get to grips with and do so accurately. The engagement period tends to be a busy and frenetic time. observations can be missed or mistaken. It isn’t unreasonable for a married couple to wish for a short honeymoon period where they aren’t plunged straight into the trials and tribulations of pregnancy at a time when they may be attempting to consolidate financially, especially if they have not previously been cohabiting or sexually intimate.

Indeed if more young women were to monitor their fertility then arguably potential problems could be identified and treated more swiftly. Even, Sir Robert Winston, the IVF pioneer has argued that too many women are being automatically referred for IVF treatment after a failure to conceive, when cheaper and more effective treatments may be available. (Such as for example, the NaPro Centre in Ireland).

Natural Fertility Awareness is scorned by the vast majority of the medical profession, who do not understand it and believe it to be some sort of outdated rhythm method from 50 years ago as opposed to a rigorously scientific method, based on a woman’s own individual fertility, rather than the standardised version assumed by manufacturers of hormonal contraception. This leads to a passive attitude adopted by woman, who are taught to believe that their natural fertility is an out of control monster which needs to be medically  suppressed in order for them to stay healthy.

Last week my youngest daughter came up with an alarming looking rash, (it turned out to be some sort of pityriasis) which needed swift checking out by a medic. Unable to get a GP appointment within a few days, I took her instead to the walk-in centre in central Brighton so she could be seen swiftly. This particular centre also happened to be an anonymous walk-in sexual health and GUM clinic. I was particularly struck by the larger -than-life size posters advertising their sexual health and contraceptive services. Basically there was nowhere you could look without seeing adverts for sexual health prominently displayed. (Which is understandable when you consider Brighton’s considerable LGBT population and the location of the clinic, next to the railway station. You can pop in for an anonymous HIV test).

I was sat in front of an enormous six foot banner stand, which displayed a photograph of a clean-cut, wholesome-looking, causal but modestly dressed, pretty young blond woman, advertising “reproductive health services.’ The image has stayed with me precisely because as I thought at the time, the model was obviously chosen for her ordinary look. The message was crystal clear, all young women will be having sex and therefore they need to ensure that they do not have an unwanted pregnancy or contract any sexually transmitted diseases.

It was precisely the sort of image that I identified with as a teenager or in my twenties, just a normal-looking young woman, probably a professional of some sort, living a normal adult life, in sexual relationships and needing to make sure that she was healthy. Sexual health being just one more adult responsibility that she had to deal with. Take the pill, use condoms with new partners, get checked from time to time to make sure you haven’t inadvertently picked up anything nasty – no big deal, all part of being an empowered grown up.

I had bought into that entire mindset which is why the poster really struck a chord with me.  I too was that ‘empowered’ young woman who believed that all romantic relationships ought to involve sex and that consensual one-night stands were no problem. Sex was  a fun and exciting thing to do and most people who had an unplanned pregnancy had been a bit stupid. (Until it happened to me). Everywhere young women go, they are subtly indoctrinated into a certain way of thinking about sex and their sex lives. The poster was deliberately designed to feature a bland image of an everyday, normal attractive woman, with whom most woman would identify. No doubt in other areas, the models used would vary according to demographics.

Which is why it is so important that women are introduced into another way of thinking about their fertility, namely monitoring their own individual cycles instead of being duped into a passive acceptance of long-term hormonal suppression as being the norm.

This is why I don’t have so much of a problem as Joseph Shaw does, in terms of the secular nature of the video, which is perhaps designed to reach beyond the Catholic faithful.

I’ve personally found NFA to be so enriching for my marriage, despite not always managing to avoid pregnancy, that I want to share it with others because it’s a great thing in and of itself, and as Dr Shaw notes, the fewer people pumping estrogen into atmosphere or suffering from potential side effects, the better. Sceptic readers could do worse than read Sweetening the Pill. In January 2014, Vanity Fair published a 10,000 word expose of the Nuvaring, which has been responsible for thousands of avoidable blood clots and hundreds of deaths, all suppressed by the manufacturers who are now facing lawsuits. Wanting to get women off this stuff is an act of charity and mercy.

Advocating NFA to non-Catholics is the perfect example of graduality – get women onto a more natural and healthier way of avoiding pregnancy and it may well prove a useful first stepping stone in terms of evangelisation. It also might do something to engender better attitudes to sex and the rejection of female instrumentalisation, which has to be in the interests of the common good. I cannot emphasise how much of an uphill battle it is to overturn the entrenched attitudes hammered into children by well-meaning but ultimately ideologically blind professionals, since pre-adolescence.

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Every secular priest ought to read this too. Ideally have a copy on hand to lend to couples.

For Catholics struggling with NFA, I strongly recommend Simcha Fisher’s Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, which is unashamedly written from a Catholic perspective. The book does not tell you how to chart, it does not give the pros and cons of NFA, it does not moralise, or tell you how many children you ought to have, but rather it acts as a spiritual accompaniement purely in terms of the sex and relationship issues related to NFP. If only it had been written two years ago when I was struggling with an unplanned pregnancy, in extremely challenging circumstances. Not only should married couples read it, but anyone involved in any sort of ministry involving engaged and married couples and yes priests, I mean you – it’s not a heavy theological tome, it’ll take a couple of days at most, but most definitely a decent use of your time.

Like Joseph, Simcha identifies the notion of being ‘baby-phobic’ but nonetheless she expclicity rejects the idea of the ‘contraceptive mentality’ that many Catholics using NFA have supposedly adopted. Certainly every Catholic I know who uses NFP, does so with a prayerful mentality and to accept NFA is also to accept that sex could always result in a baby, something that our experience has taught us.

In the aftermath of the Synod, there is a troubling narrative doing the rounds, namely that Catholics who avoid children must have a critical reason for doing so. As I said last year, this is explicitly, not the case, and to get hung up on the ‘grave and serious’ reasons for avoiding conceptions, ignores the actual teaching of Humanae Vitae.

What I said in August 2013, still seems pertinent.

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.

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.

To be clear, Joe Shaw did not advocate that everyone should have 10 children, nor did he insist that the reasons for avoiding children ought to be life-threatening, but he was stating that the vocation of marriage must include openness to children. The challenge is how to communicate this beyond the Catholic faithful.

Postscript for the sake of transparency

I am extremely happy to go on record as saying that following the birth of our fifth (God willing, living) child in March, I am no longer open to pregnancy.

I should not need to justify this to the Catholic faithful and it speaks volumes that I immediately feel defensive about this decision. Couples ought to be trusted to prayerfully discern what is right for them in their particular circumstances without having to defend themselves to random shouty online strangers.

For those wishing to ‘judge’ my Catholicity, the reasons are as follows:

  1. As I age, pregnancy is exacting an increasing toll on my body physically. This is in turn having an impact on the rest of the family as I am constantly exhausted and unable to function at full capacity. Due to the transient nature of our living circumstances over the past few years, there are no family or friends close by to help pick up the slack. While pregnancy is only a temporary stage, this recent piece from First Things notes that Catholics should not shy away from accepting and validating its difficulties. I am one of those women for whom pregnancy is a form of the Passion.
  2. I am facing my fourth cesarian section. While I know of women who have had as many as seven, 4 is considered the upper limit for this to be performed safely by most surgeons. During the birth of our youngest daughter there were some difficulties in terms of scar tissue and a large amount of adhesions; this next procedure is expected to be complicated and may well result in some damage to surrounding organs or emergency hysterectomy. A recent ante-natal appointment resulted not in discussion of the wellbeing of my unborn baby, but my being exhorted to accept sterilisation while I was on the table. An option which I have declined.

So no doubt in being very clear that we wish to avoid pregnancy – we fall into the scandalous contraceptive mindset. Perhaps the difference is that it’s not that we reject the idea of further children, but of further pregnancies?

However if the Catholic Church really wishes to throw off her image of misogynistic judgementalism, perhaps advocates of the vocation of marriage, ought to embrace the positive instead of loudly critiquing what they believe to be the motivations of the imaginary minority. I don’t need some shouty man imagining that he can persuade the world to tell me how I need to put my health and family at risk if I wish to save my soul or trying to engage me in online discussion about how married couples need to be open to life 100% of the time. Actually this is one issue where the feminists have a point, there is something particularly grating about a man who does not ever experience the physical tribulations of pregnancy and childbirth telling women how they ought to feel about the subject, no matter how logical, rational or theologically correct he may be.

Using NFA requires trust and a whole new way of thinking. Let’s encourage people to do that without telling them exactly what their decisions should be or implying that they ought to have fifty children until their uterus drops out.

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I always appreciate receiving feedback and so I was most grateful to receive an email from Edmund Adamus, the Director for Marriage and Family Life in Westminster Diocese.

I have with his permission, published his email in its entirety below. In a stroke of providence, the 2008 Theology of the Body Lecture in Westminster which was delivered by Janet Smith for the 40th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae, was one which I attended with Robin and was one of those key moments in his journey towards Catholicism. Janet’s talk should, I think, be delivered in every school and parish up and down the land. Also Mark Lambert has written an interesting response, here.

Dear Caroline,

Thank you for your post on August 1st

A most articulate piece. Janet Smith and I have been in continuous correspondence since she delivered the 2008 Annual Theology of the Body lecture in Westminster to commemorate the 40th anniversary of HV. She and I both agree that the phrase ‘responsible parenthood’ doesn’t adequately reflect a faithful translation of the original Latin in the Encyclical. “Conscious parenthood” would render something closer and with one stroke it would extricate the Church from ‘buying in to’ [albeit in an unintended manner] to the culture that treats conception and birth like a pathology.  You may find the quote below useful at some stage in your work. It is certainly one I intend to use again when I address the annual national ‘NFP’ conference on October 12th. *

“It is said that when seeking ways of regulating births, only 5% of you consult God. In the face of this unfortunate fact, we your pastors have been remiss: how few are there among you whom we have reached. There have been some couples eager to share their expertise and values on birth regulation with others. They did not receive adequate support from their priests. We did not give them due attention, believing then this ministry consisted merely of imparting a technique best left to married couples. Only recently have we discovered how deep your yearning is for God to be present in your married lives. But we did not know then how to help you discover God’s presence and activity in your mission of Christian parenting. Afflicted with doubts about alternatives to contraception technology, we abandoned you to your confused and lonely consciences with a lame excuse: ‘follow what your conscience tells you.’ How little we realized that it was our consciences that needed to be formed first. A greater concern would have led us to discover that religious hunger in you”

(Professor Janet Smith, Contraception – Why Not? Westminster Cathedral Hall, March 5th 2008).

One other less known fact of history is that ;

 

‘The term ‘Natural Family Planning’ or ‘NFP’ was coined in 1971 at a joint meeting of federal public health officials [in USA] and international leaders of the nascent NFP Movement, and made its first appearance in print in 1973. The implications of this verbal merger were not lost on the population control establishment, which was quick to publicize the idea that the Church had adopted the concept of ‘family planning’ and that the only remaining area of disagreement was over methodology. . . .’ The Final Plague: Sex Education by Randy Engel . Pan Books 1993, footnote 400.

 

Hence my own personal and professional preference to refer to fertility awareness or as you say NFA….   But for now nfp will do when we are starting slowly to reverse a culture …

 Edmund

* The title of Edmund’s talk is “Fertility Awareness; Naturally Serving the Communion of Persons.”

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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.

Postscript

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.

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Okay, so this is a bit of an experiment, but I’d really like it to catch on and would also like the support of the entire Catholic blogosphere, certainly in the UK and what an amazing thing if this could go global.

Inspired by Deacon Nick Donnelly, who has such an inspirational apostolate with his Protect the Pope blog, my blood pressure rose when I saw that a certain ‘Catholic’ theologian is once again hinting at doctrinal changes, seemingly misunderstanding that these are simply not possible. This isn’t meant to be a personal attack on Tina Beattie herself, I can understand that it must be unnerving to feel constantly besieged by a group of bloggers on the internet, but in a recent interview in the Guardian she states:

The new pope must show that he is willing to engage seriously with women’s theological voices and moral perspectives in a way which is broadly representative of the diverse experiences and aspirations of women, and not just with a few carefully selected theological handmaids.

The Church is not a democracy. Furthermore doctrines cannot change, Catholicism is based upon the truth that was revealed to us by Jesus Christ and handed down by the apostles to their successors. Revealed truth cannot change, the deposit of faith is comprised of this revealed truth expressed in Scripture and sacred tradition and thus cannot change. The church does not have the power to change or remove anything that has been given to us by Christ and His Apostles.

It is beyond annoying being told what the Church should do in relation to women, by people who are either not Catholic, or want the Church to change her doctrine in order to accommodate their own personal agendas, whether that be to allow self-destructive behaviour, to validate their own insecurity or to give them more ‘power’, which is never a healthy thing. None of us should crave positions of power or leadership.

Many faithful Catholic women are fed up of being told that they are not representative of the Catholic faith, that they are somehow brainwashed or marginalised, that their Church hates them and that most Catholic women are against the Church’s teachings, especially with regards to contraception, abortion and the male priesthood, most of which is based on dodgy poll data.

Here’s what I’d like to do. I’m not sure if this blog is the best forum for it, but then again it is run by a married mother of 4 young girls, who is passionate about female equality and empowerment, it’s just my definition of what that looks like, is very different to that of militant feminists or unrepresentative politicians and journalists, who think working women is all about a high-powered job in a nice city office somewhere on mega-bucks, or perhaps a well-paid newspaper column working from home, whereas the reality for most working mothers and children is entirely different.

I’d like to get as many Catholic women as possible, to sign up in the comments box below, to say that they agree with the following statement.

I am a faithful practicing Roman Catholic woman, who attends Mass at least once a week and who believes in and practices the Church’s teachings, specifically pertaining to matters on sexuality, contraception, abortion, marriage and the ordination of women. I believe that the Roman Catholic Church is sympathetic to and representative of the needs and concerns of women and their children, wherever they may be in the world. I would like to offer our new Pope Francis, my prayers and support and thank him for his continued protection and support of mothers and their unborn children. I fully endorse Church doctrine in relation to women’s issues. 

This could be an amazing gift for the Year of Faith. Imagine if every single faithful Catholic woman were to pledge their solidarity to our new Pope and Church doctrine in one place. What a gift, blessing and comfort, not only for Pope Francis, but also for ALL the Catholic clergy, Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, Monsignors, Priests, Deacons, as well as those members of the laity, who are engaged in catechesis. How heartening for them to see the fruits of their work and how loved, supported and appreciated they are by Catholic women everywhere.

Also, what an opportunity for catechesis this could be, in terms of promoting the New Feminism. If you do see this and you are a Catholic women who feels in good conscience that she cannot sign up, don’t leave a comment on this post, I’ll open up another sticky and we can get debate going there, or better still, discuss it with your priest, or someone you know who can sign in good faith.

What a message to the Pope, to the Church and to the world and media at large. We, the undersigned Catholic women, have a love for Christ and his Church burning in our hearts and we do not wish to alter or change doctrine one little bit. We are empowered by a beautiful teaching that recognises us as having an equal dignity and sets us free to live in love.

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Generally speaking I try to keep this blog apolitical for a multitude of reasons, perhaps because like many Christians I have absolutely no idea where I fall on the political spectrum: biblical Christianity does not fit neatly into the left/right praxis of modern Western democracies and currently like many orthodox Christians and Catholics and it would seem, most of the electorate, I feel politically disenfranchised. If an election were called tomorrow, I couldn’t vote for any mainstream political party in good conscience, and even choosing the candidate most likely to reflect Catholic teaching is a rather tough call in Brighton and Hove.

Any residual sympathy for the Tories, who seem to be more sympathetic to a pro life agenda and who, unlike Labour, allow their MPs a free conscience vote on matters such as same sex marriage and life issues, has dissipated with George Osborne’s announcement that he plans to curb child tax credits. The precise details have not yet been announced but this will be a blow to thousands of families already feeling the squeeze in the most difficult economic climate for generations.

Make no mistake, the welfare system does need an enormous overhaul, we are trapped in a vicious circle where most families need government welfare in order to top up household income to afford the cost of living. Whilst the government continues to subsidise us, the deficit continues to grow and employers have no incentive to raise wages and thus the cycle continues, but if working tax credits are withdrawn thousands of families will fall into poverty, with waves of house repossessions and potentially catastrophic circumstances.

Osborne’s answer to the spiralling welfare bill seems to be very short-sighted, namely to stop families from having too many children in order to reduce the state’s financial burden. Whilst this might appear to be a sensible policy on the surface, anyone in dire financial straits who seriously cannot afford to feed, clothe or house additional children should temporarily delay having children until they are in a better position, it does at the very least, send a very clear message that more than two children should be the preserve of the wealthy. It also dangerously assumes that the state should assume financial responsibility for families, which of course, is one of the difficulties with welfare as a whole.

The problem is that in an ideal world, welfare should be a safety net only, society has a duty and obligation to look after those who are unable to provide for themselves, however we have got ourselves into a situation where most families rely on assistance from the state, for better or worse. The ideal would be for the state to help families wean themselves off support, however this is not going to happen when wages are not keeping pace with rising inflation, not to mention the catastrophic property boom which has made buying and even renting a family home, out of the reach of many.

If George Osborne curbs child tax credit, the effect will be felt hardest amongst families at the lower end of the earnings scale. Apparently the thinking behind it is to prevent the caricature families with 15 children, parents who have never worked, possess large flat screen TVs, coupled with smoking and drinking habits that the mainstream media like to demonise. No doubt there are families like this who do abuse the system, but welfare is a very blunt instrument with which to cut down on abuses, and as the ESA reforms show, it is largely innocent people who get caught in the crossfire.

From a pro-life point of view these reforms could well exacerbate the soaring abortion rate as well as encourage euthanasia twenty years down the line, when our ever-aging population finds that it has a real shortage of young people to boost the economy. Who is going to work to pay taxes to help fund the costs of care for us when we are elderly and sick? Will there be enough people to actually physically look after us or will care homes and hospitals find themselves with labour shortages? Is it fair to put the burden of looking after elderly parents on one child?

The abortion statistics show year after year, that the majority of abortions occur in the 25+ age category. Around 30% of women who terminate their pregnancies are aged 30 and over. These are very often women who already have a family, who are well aware of foetal development, who know the realties of pregnancy and child-rearing and yet feel that they have no other realistic choice. It’s a situation with which I have much personal empathy. I know only too well what it is like to be pregnant and worried about the future holds, to be seriously scared about whether or not you will be able to provide for another child, financially, practically and emotionally. Even if your child tax credits are not topped up substantially, the extra £13 per week in child benefit provides reassurance that at least the nappies will be affordable. For those thinking that an extra baby need not be a huge expense – simply the nappies, without any other expenditure put an extra burden on the grocery bill, and that’s before one’s thought about formula milk, then later shoes, which can’t always be passed down, and the extra food required – break, milk, cereals, fruit and veg, which have all seen substantial price rises over the past few years. I still shudder when I realise that it’s impossible to buy a loaf of bread for under £1 in most supermarkets.

Women who abort, don’t tend to do it for just one reason alone, there are a plethora of inter-related anxieties, of which money and finances often feature highest on the agenda, particularly for those who already have children. For many it is not simply a case of having to forgo luxuries but very real pressing concerns about making ends meet. George Osborne might think he is preventing dependence on the state, but the grave side effect of this policy is that it will encourage abortion. What happens to a woman who loses her job or whose partner loses their job or perhaps walks out on her when she’s pregnant and already has children to look after? She either aborts, adopts or struggles to fend for her children, but it’s hard to give hope and encouragement when the government are saying that unless you have a steady permanent well-paid job, your children are not welcome. It’s certainly at odds with a government whose leading members are wanting to reduce the abortion time limits.

It makes no sense that Ian Duncan-Smith’s eminently more sensible idea of means testing payments such as the winter fuel allowance for the elderly, many of whom are the baby boomers who have profited from the property bubble and are enjoying a lavish retirement, has been rejected, in favour of targeting so-called feckless families and only drives these families further into poverty, regardless of whether or not they are in work. Perhaps the Government needs to do more in terms of job creation?

It is fear of stigmatisation, fear of people’s perceptions, fear of being written off as being either a feckless teenage mum or a scrounger on welfare that is a very real deterrent for women with unplanned pregnancies, along with concerns about how they are going to manage. These proposed welfare cuts are a real blow to creating a more life accepting society.

I am not sure whether or not a Catholic in good conscience could endorse such a government which not only seeks to use its powers to limit the number of children the average family has (given the previously mooted cuts to child benefit) but also creates an environment more likely to drive women to abortion. What if these so-called feckless families out of work continue to have children, undeterred by the cuts? Even if they save money on the welfare bill, they are still likely to cost more in terms of needing support from other services such as health or education providers.

The words of Paul VI seem ever more prophetic.

Who could blame a government for applying to the solution of the problems of the community those means acknowledged to be licit for married couples in the solution of a family problem? Who will stop rulers from favoring, from even imposing upon their peoples, if they were to consider it necessary, the method of contraception which they judge to be most efficacious? In such a way men, wishing to avoid individual, family, or social difficulties encountered in the observance of the divine law, would reach the point of placing at the mercy of the intervention of public authorities the most personal and most reserved sector of conjugal intimacy.

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