Abusing NFP

by Kathleen van Schaijik

Janet Smith’s recent talk at Ave Maria College, “When is it Moral to Practice NFP?” gave a cogent objectivist argument that Natural Family Planning may be licit in a broader range of circumstances than many Catholics think. But, the sympathies of the crowd seemed to be providentialist.1 Many who were present clearly regard NFP as morally dangerous. One woman scoffed out loud at the absurdity of newly weds imagining they could have serious enough reasons for postponing children. Another person proposed that since most women are fertile for 20 - 25 years, 8 - 10 would appear to be the “default number” of children per family—at least for couples married in their early 20s with no fertility problems. In other words, the fact that so few Catholic families have that many children is a good indication that NFP is being widely abused.

Though she is certainly not one herself, and though her talk was framed as a refutation of their position, I fear that much of Dr. Smith’s talk might have been taken as encouraging to the providentialists.2 For instance, the concrete examples she gave as potentially legitimate reasons for practicing NFP were mostly rather extreme ones: a serious health problem, joblessness, a retarded or handicapped child who needed an exceptional amount of parental attention for a year or two. She mentioned the instance of a couple she knows who practiced NFP for a year so that the wife could finish law school, but she treated it as a somewhat doubtful case. Perhaps it was legit, perhaps not. She wasn’t sure. She also spoke of the moral duty of spouses to have children—giving aid and comfort to those who hold that unless there are definite obstacles intervening, each couple ought to be having children at more or less regular intervals from the beginning of marriage for as long as they’re fertile. And, when an astute member of the audience asked whether she perceived any “danger from the right” in this discussion—namely a kind of pharisaism among the providentialists—Dr. Smith gave a humorous, but emphatic No in reply: “Generally couples who make an error on the side of having too many children are too busy to do much damage.”

Dr. Smith has spent decades of her time and gallons of her spiritual lifeblood fighting contraception, so it is easy to sympathize with her affection for big families, and her reluctance to say hard things about providentialism. But, still, I wish she had given a more forceful response to this very insightful question. It is bad to leave an impression that the only harm likely to come from providentialism is a few superfluous babies. (If it were, how could we speak of a problem at all? Who can bear with patience the idea of “superfluous babies”?)

No, the real problem with providentialism is something very different; something deep and far-reaching—going, in fact, to the innermost heart of our Faith. In brief, providentialism represents and perpetuates a false view of human sexuality, of marriage and of the Christian moral life—a view that malforms consciences, grievously burdens families, and misrepresents the Church to the world.

Serious charges, I am aware. Please bear with me while I explain.

First, let me repeat a key distinction, helpfully enunciated by Dr. Smith in the course of her talk. There are two critically different kinds of providentialists, which in shorthand we may call personal providentialists and theoretical providentialists. The problem I am speaking of is only with the latter. It has nothing at all to do with those spouses who, taking into prayerful account the unique inward and outward circumstances of their married life, freely and generously open themselves to as many children as come to them.3 In fact, I’ll even grant gladly that the Church has a “preferential love” for such families, just as she has for the poor. (What Catholic heart can resist them?) The problem is not with these, but with those who “add to God’s law” by seeking to impose an obligation on all married couples that is not to be found in the teachings of the Church, viz., that unless prevented by nature or emergencies, all married couples ought to have large families; and, correlatively, no couple should make use of NFP, except in very rare cases, and then only with sincere regret and extreme caution.4 (NB: This kind of providentialist can be found among priests, teachers and single lay Catholics, as well as married couples. It is not unknown among college students.)

What does the Church really say?

The teaching of the Church with respect to family planning is straightforward, clear and easily summarized.

1)   Spouses must be willing to accept children lovingly.

2)   Spouses may not practice contraception.

3)   Taking into consideration a whole range and variety of factors, including physical, economic, psychological and sociological factors, spouses may do well to practice Natural Family Planning to space children and/or limit family size, provided that they do so with due moral seriousness—with a generous, responsible and prayerful sense of what they owe to God, to one another, to their children and to society.

That’s all.

The theoretical providentialists wish there were more to it than that. They wish they could find quotations in Humanae Vitae to support their view of the matter, as, for instance:

  • “NFP, while distinguishable from contraception in not being absolutely immoral, is seldom licit and always regrettable.”

  • “Most married couples (especially in the wealthy West) are perfectly capable of having large families, and most reasons cited for not having large families are bogus.”

  • “Couples who choose to have large families are making the religiously and morally superior choice.”

  • “Since selfishness is such a near and present danger, no one should practice NFP without first consulting a priest.”

  • “The following do not constitute valid reasons for using NFP: wanting to finish your education; wanting to save up for children’s future education; being tired; being stressed; being burdened by debt; having to move; having a small, crowded house; being depressed; feeling overwhelmed, etc.”

    Theoretical providentialists would like to find such statements in Church documents, but they can’t. They are not there, because the Church does not want them there. They are not there because “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” The Church lays on each married couple the solemn responsibility to discern well for themselves, and on all of us the solemn injunction against presuming to know what is right for others. She resists going further on purpose—not because there are so few people willing to hack the rigors of real Christianity, but because real Christianity is, precisely, freedom.

    The chronic temptation of pharisaism

    Salvation history can practically be summarized as God’s tireless endeavor to liberate His people from captivity, in the face of our persistent, self-destructive hankering after slavishness.

    In the Old Testament this hankering manifested itself in various ways, including, among others, a tendency to adhere to the letter of the law while offending against the spirit of the law; or in confusing external conformity to the law with inward righteousness; or in imagining that “piling on” the dictates of the law should be counted as “going the extra mile” religiously and morally.

    In the New Testament the preference for being “under the law” can be seen in the Pharisees’ rejection of the good news. Exemplary adherence to the law of Moses was the core of the Pharisees’ personal identity, as well as the basis for their social stature. When this law was super-ceded by Jesus’ proclamation of mercy for all, it meant that the Pharisees were no longer exceptional. They were, in truth, no better than “those others”—the tax collectors and prostitutes, and everyone else whose righteousness depended utterly on God. It was intolerable. They preferred the law that established their superiority.

    After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the spread of the gospel among the gentiles, the same tendency reasserted itself in new forms. Very early on in the life of the Church, some Jewish Christians insisted that gentile converts be circumcised, while others held that circumcision was no longer necessary. The controversy grew so intense and divisive that it prompted the convening of a kind of pre-Vatican Vatican council, and the dissemination of the first “proto encyclical” of ecclesial history. Here is what it said:

    “We have heard that some of our number without any instructions from us have upset you with their discussions and disturbed your peace of mind….It is the decision of the Holy Spirit, and ours too, not to lay on you any burden beyond that which is strictly necessary, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from illicit sexual union.” (Acts 15: 24-29, my emphasis)

    Thus, from the beginning we see the Church using her authority to minimize rules, maximize freedom, and reprimand those who burden and confuse the consciences of the faithful with teachings that “add to the law.” (Paul’s letter to the Galatians is an elaboration of this theme.)

    Generalizing for brevity’s sake, we can say that the majority of the heresies condemned by the Church (Donatism, Pelagianism, and Jansenism, to name a few) have been rooted in a similar principle. They follow a pattern: A portion of the faithful get carried beyond what is required in the practical application of their religious zeal; they resent and condemn the perceived laxity of the wider Church; they are reprimanded by authorities for their unwarranted severity; and they are so appalled and indignant to find the Church on the side of their opponents that they condemn the pope as apostate, and declare themselves the remnant of the true faithful.

    Nor is this base tendency confined to the extreme instances of outright heresy. It is a perennial spiritual plague within the Church, as well as in the private dramas of our own souls. In every age, and in various ways, we are tempted to reject the freedom given to us in the Holy Spirit, and place ourselves under laws of our own making. We resist authentic freedom for two reasons:

    1) Because it is so costly. We do not like to bear what C.S. Lewis calls “the weight of glory”—the overwhelming demands of our vocation to live as sons and daughters of the Most High God. (It is much easier to adhere to a law than to become holy.)

    2) Because a law gives us an objective, external measure of our superiority over others. (This is an extremely pleasant thing to have.)

    I will not hesitate to say that I think theoretical providentialism is a modern manifestation of this age-old evil. Rather than “rejoicing with joy” in the freedom that has been granted to married couples in our age—a freedom divinely calculated to meet the peculiar challenges of family life in today’s world, and a freedom not enjoyed by couples past, whose only licit means of limiting child birth was total abstinence—they want to clamp down, impose restrictions, and dramatically narrow the range of married liberty. Unconsciously, they are allying themselves with the Pharisees.

    The face of pharisaism

    The alliance between the Pharisees and providentialism becomes clearer when we note that classical pharisaism is characterized by especially two features: externalism and judgmentalism—both of which are prominent in theoretical providentialism.

    The externalism can be seen in several ways:

  • In the talk of “default numbers’ of children (as if we were not given the Holy Spirit, and called to discern God’s perfect will for us as unique individuals.)

  • In the idea that a couple’s generosity can be measured by the size of their family, as opposed to the depth and completeness of their inward gift-of-self (something God alone knows.) In truth, it is perfectly possible that a given mother of two is more generous than a given mother of 12, just as the offering of “the widow’s mite” in the Gospel was worth more than the lavish offerings of the wealthy man.

  • In the reduction of “serious reasons” to the objectively measurable categories of financial or health crises (as if “subjective reasons” such as stress and depression are nothing but smokescreens for selfishness.)

  • In the very notion that anyone standing outside the intimate, sacramental bond of a marital union is in a position to determine whether or not NFP is justified in their case. Only the spouses have that capacity, that privilege and that responsibility. Not even a priest is capable of determining what’s right for them. He may advise; he may help them overcome perplexity; he may undeceive them of an error in their thinking. But in the end, the judgment about how they should exercise the rights and duties of their vocation is exclusively their own.

    The judgmentalism shows up in the tendency theoretical providentialists have to heap scorn on married couples who practice NFP, accusing them of being sensualists and materialists who are rejecting the cross and compromising with the world. I have known providentialists (even unmarried ones) who do not shrink from interrogating married couples about their intimate lives and their reasons for using NFP—as if it were their place to “admonish the sinners.” I understand that they mean well; they think they are “speaking the truth.” But it is nevertheless inexcusably impertinent.

    To those who may find themselves speaking or thinking this way: “I see that couple over there. They were married at 23; they are now 40, and yet they have only four children. They have a large home, two nice cars, blooming health. Quite obviously they had no serious reasons for practicing NFP. What faithless Catholics! What compromisers!” I beg you to note how perilously like the “righteous man” excoriated in the Gospels you sound. “O Lord, I thank Thee that Thou hast not made me like that couple over there; I thank thee that I am one of the few who serve you truly by having (or planning to have, once I am married) even more than the default number of children!”

    Thinking this way is bad enough, teaching others to think this way is worse. It burdens and disheartens exactly where the Church is working most to bless and encourage: marriages and families.

    So, if not law or “Providence” what should guide our “family planning”?

    To the question: “When is it good to practice NFP?” There is only one perfectly true answer. It is this: “When love calls for it.”

    Love is the meaning of life; the meaning of marriage; the meaning of human sexuality. It is (or should be), both explicitly and implicitly, the source and reference point for all our acts and judgments within marriage.

    If a man notices that his wife is exhausted and overwhelmed, it is love in him to suppress his desire to embrace her sexually. (To insist on his “conjugal rights” at such a time would be an act of unlove.) Or, if a woman sees that her husband is being crushed by a too-heavy weight of responsibility, then it is love in her to put aside her longing to have another baby, and wait patiently for a better time. Or, if devoted parents notice that their children are suffering from too little attention, then they may, out of love, discipline their desires in order to be better able to attend to their education. Or, if a husband recognizes in his wife an extraordinary vocation—to teach, say, or to law—then he may, out of love, urge her to complete her studies before the duties of motherhood become consuming, so that when the call comes to use those gifts, she will be ready.

    Or, on the other hand, if an NFP-practicing husband and wife have been apart for a long time, then they may, for love of each other, decide that their reunion at this moment is more important than their reasons for postponing a new birth. Or, though a couple may be suffering serious financial and other difficulties, their love of life, their joy in their children, and their confidence in God’s providence may be such as to make all obstacles seem like nothing in comparison with the gift of another child.

    This is the way marriage is supposed to be—a fully free, fully conscious and responsible participation in the self-forgetting, self-donating love of the Holy Trinity. At times, and according to the unique and unrepeatable “illative sense”5 of each married couple, this love will call for the conjugal embrace. At other times it will call for sexual abstinence. For some couples it may mean that NFP never enters the picture. For others it may mean that NFP becomes a normal part of married life.

    In sum, the Church’s teaching is divinely designed to help us realize and increase our potential to live in the Image and Likeness of God.


    To those who are bewildered by the mass of conflicting arguments and testimonies on this issue, I can only urge you, read Humanae Vitae; read Love and Responsibility; read Marriage: the Mystery of Faithful Love. You will see how unlike the providentialists the Church is!6 She is not severe and condemnatory. She is, like her Lord, full of tenderness and mercy. She is not frowning on married couples the world over. She does not load us down with crushing demands, but carefully restricts her laws to the minimum necessary for our holiness, and then “stands back” and delights in the revelation of the fathomless diversity of the faithful response to the sacramental grace of marriage.

    Kathleen van Schaijik (FUS class of ‘88) is Editor of the Concourse. Her husband, Jules (FUS class of ‘89) teaches philosophy at Ave Maria College. They have four children.

    1. Providentialists, for our purposes, are those who believe that married couples should “let God decide” how many children they will have, i.e., refrain from making use of NFP, except in very rare cases. ↑
    2. Elsewhere Dr. Smith has been more forceful in her critique of providentialism. See her website:  ↑
    3. It">http://www.udallas.edu/phildept/smith/publications.htm{/fn2}{fn3}It is important to stress that not all couples who avoid NFP qualify for this category. For some families, not using NFP has more to do with irresponsibility than generosity. NFP avoidance is only admirable when it springs from true generosity—a conscious, loving, and free response to God’s grace. ↑
    4. Although this is a sharp distinction “on paper,” it should be noted that in concrete individuals these two types of providentialists tend to blend into each other in varying ways and degrees. For instance, a given “personal providentialist” couple may avoid thoroughgoing theoretical providentialism by conscientiously refraining from judging others, while at the same time their own bearing of many children is characterized more by a sense of obligation than of free choice. Or, a couple who begin marriage as rigid theoretical providentialists may—as they have children and live life—gradually come to a more sympathetic and generous appreciation of the different circumstances and vocations of Christian families. My hope in writing this article is not so much to persuade the die-hard theoretical providentialists that they are wrong (a virtually impossible task, I fear), as to expose a false principle, so that all of us may be on better guard against it in our own thinking and acting.  ↑
    5. See Newman’s Grammar of Assent, chapter 9 for more on the illative sense ↑
    6. For instance, listen to how Humanae Vitae praises “the honest practice of regulation of birth” for the good it can do for family life: “Yet this discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value…Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace, and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention for one’s partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love; and deepens their sense of responsibility. By its means, parents acquire the capacity of having a deeper and more efficacious influence in the education of their offspring…” ( P 21) ↑

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