NFP, by itself, does not compromise the marriage vocation
by Kathleen van Schaijik
Not so long ago I read (in a Couple-to-Couple League newsletter) an interview with a Catholic gynecologist who had decided to stop prescribing artificial birth control to his clients and move his practice to an area with a large Catholic population. It was a moving testimony of personal courage and integrity, and of the moral and spiritual benefits of avoiding birth control.
In the course of the interview this doctor made a broad distinction between two types of Catholic families he encountered in his practice: those who, he said, use Natural Family Planning (with serious reason) and had small families, and those he called “providentialists”, that is, families who “let God decide” how many children they will have and when they will come. Without judging the legitimacy of the first group’s choice, the doctor was decidedly more impressed with the second—in general, he said, they were the more generous, joy-filled and well-adjusted families—the better representatives (he implied) of the true Catholic ethos.
I bring up this article because it provides a clear case in point of an attitude I think is rather prevalent among serious Catholics (though not always stated so forthrightly), and which I wish to challenge.
There is no question that the sort of families named “providentialists” by the doctor are worthy of our admiration. To be willing to endure the sacrifices and trials today’s “culture of death” make inevitable for large families, out of love for children and commitment to Faith, is to be at least a hero, if not a saint.
I question instead his portrait of the first group, and the way he draws the line between the two.
Without presuming that the interview adequately expresses the doctor’s real views on the matter, I can still say that, as it is, it leaves the reader with the impression that he thinks Catholic couples who practice NFP, by the fact of their practicing it, are somehow more worldly—less radical in their commitment to the faith—than couples who choose not to practice it. He does not at all suggest that they sin in using NFP—he deliberately speaks of those who use NFP legitimately—only he wants to say that (in his opinion) the testimony of their lives is not so inspiring as that of the providentialists.
Thus the line is drawn not between those who have sold out to the culture of death and bought into the contraceptive mentality, and those who love life and respect the moral law, but within this second group between those who use NFP and those who choose to let God decide how many children they will have.
And this is a very persuasive distinction. Who of us does not know of and immediately recognize the difference between families of both these types—families with numerous small children and hardly any money, whose generosity and courage and sacrifice deeply impress us; and then families who adhere to the teaching of the Church against artificial contraception, but who have only two or three children and seem to live rather mediocre lives, from a religious point of view, hardly distinguishable from the culture at large.
But, persuasive as it is, here’s my problem with it: it is misleading; it is not fully consistent with the teaching of the Church; it tends to foster a spirit of judgmentalism, and to create false consciences among the faithful.
Consider, for instance, how the distinction does not account for the all-important fact that among those who practice NFP, there are at least two critically different types. There are those who do so because they think that to keep their family small is a better way to realize their material goals in life, while avoiding too much unpleasant stress and strain. These may well appear to be compromising with the world and only lukewarm in their religious commitment. But then there are also those who, with great gratitude to God for His generous and loving Providence, and with prayer and serious discernment about His will for their lives, make use of the means He has provided to space their children, in order to better live out their vocation as a married couple and their duty to educate each child who comes. These use NFP, not as a way of avoiding or mitigating the demands of their vocation, but rather as an instrument for living it out more perfectly.
And this distinction is echoed among the so-called providentialists. There certainly are some who, with clear minds and full knowledge and deep prayer, joyfully open their hearts and their home to receive as many children as the Lord sees fit to send them—these freely and generously choose not to practice NFP. But there are also those who, either through ignorance of NFP, or because they interpret “serious reasons” to mean “dire straits”, or because they have been taught to consider any family planning a “compromise” or “less holy”, find themselves having baby after baby while they are feeling more and more strung out and less and less in control of their lives.
Thus, we have a new line to draw, which cuts across the two groups described by the doctor. It lies between those who live out their married vocation only partially, or half-heartedly and largely in the dark, and those who approach it prayerfully, with a sense of religious seriousness, commitment and sacrifice. There are users of NFP in both groups.
Drawing the line this way assists us in avoiding the chronic sin of judgemen-talism, since it makes it much harder for anyone “on the outside” of a particular couple to discern to which category they belong.
Now, some may object that my distinction assumes that NFP can be used in this way. True, but it seems to me this is an assumption amply justified by the teachings of the Church (Humanae Vitae as well as more recent statements by our Pope) as well as by the experience of countless faithful. I myself am acquainted with many “NFP families”, whose lives are pervaded with faith—with a profound consciousness of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the possibility of being able “to discern His most holy and perfect will”, who openly profess their desire to live wholly for God, who seek Him and His will for them daily in prayer, whose love for their children is manifest, whose children are beautifully raised—full of confidence and simple, joyful faith.
Who are we (who is anyone?) to suggest that, since they use NFP in less-than-dire-straits, they have compromised in this most serious area of their moral lives? How could we even hint that although their professed desire is to become holy and to raise saints for the Church, in truth they have neglected to “take up their cross” and really lay down their lives; they’ve kept something back. Why would anyone insist that those (and there are some) who have children without ever really considering never mind prayerfully discerning God’s will for their families, are living “more Catholicly”, simply because they have not made use of an instrument the Church has fully and repeatedly sanctioned?
I realize that many couples practice NFP selfishly, without understanding the essential ordination toward children in marriage, and without openness to God’s will. This is real cause for concern among Christian leaders and teachers, and I applaud efforts to encourage such couples to live more generously—to deepen their religious seriousness, to examine their motivations, and (perhaps) to expand the borders of their families by being open to more children.
My complaint is that zeal for this cause often runs to the excess of unjustified generalizations, or interpretations of Church teaching that are unwarrantedly particular. Such are encroachments on the sovereign right (and sacred duty) of individual consciences to discern the
Divine Will for their families. Besides that such excesses frequently harm the very people they were designed to encourage, they tempt us to pride and self-righteousness—to the sense that we are among the rare few who are “radically” living out the teachings of the Church.
Let us encourage Catholic families to live more completely for God, but let us do it with profound reverence, with humility, and without being “more Catholic than the Pope”.
Kathleen van Schaijik is an alumna of the class of ‘88, and Editor of the Concourse