What interested me about his posts was the emphasis on what he called "providentialism," the modus vivendi, in his words, of "someone who does not practice any form of birth control—not even Natural Family Planning (NFP). This person simply trusts God to give him and his wife as many children as God wants for them—no more, and no less." As you might imagine, this definition led to indignation--at least in the Facebook comments that I read--from some Catholics practicing NFP. Though he probably didn't intend it, his definition implies that NFP practitioners 1) practice a form of birth control and 2) don't trust in God as much as non-NFP users. Again, while a full reading of the post shows that he probably doesn't endorse these two implications, nonetheless he has waded into--and has made his way to the far shore--of what I've gradually come to perceive as a nasty rift within the faithful Catholic subculture between those who promote and practice NFP on the one hand and, on the other, those who hold that NFP is very often misused and is no more than, to use his words, a "last resort." One of the Facebook commenters cited the priest who led her marriage preparation as saying that if ever she and her future husband had to use NFP, doing so should make them "sad."
For the record, though Rosemary and I are very familiar with NFP, and though I've written numerous articles in its favor while working for the Catholic press, we've never personally felt called to use it. Cyprian was born so quickly that apparently we were an object of gossip for old ladies in our former country parish in Wisconsin. Clement and Cletus both naturally came along after healthy, nearly two-year intervals, and our baby-on-way is right on schedule in that regard. Thus far we've been blessed with excellent health. And even during my graduate student years, it always seemed that God would give me that extra side job right when I needed it. We never felt that we couldn't provide for our children. But here is the crux of the issue for me, for "providentialism" is attractive to me in confirming for me, in a self-congratulatory way, that I've been relying on God's providence, as if others, who use NFP, haven't been doing the same. I'm reminded of one of the negative Fb comments on my friend's post, which correctly labeled such an attitude as "holier-than-thou."
Again, while I don't think my friend intends to foster this sort of Pharisaical attitude, the very label "providentialism" accomplishes just that for many people. What does it mean, after all, to rely on God's providence? Is total reliance on God to provide exactly as many children as He wants something to be defined separately from the faithfully discerned practice of NFP?
To conclude, I found myself reflecting at length not only on the idea that NFP is a last resort--I've argued that it's not; it's more of a balancing act between the extremes of excessive caution and excessive confidence--but especially on the aforementioned priest's notion that having to use it should make a couple "sad." St. Thomas Aquinas (ST I-II, 36, art. 1) distinguishes between sorrow, which he says is the result of the presence of evil, and pain, which is the result of the loss of temporal goods. Even if NFP is truly the result of prayerful discernment, it might nonetheless cause us pain because we can imagine the children we might have had. Of course, that pain can make us bitter, or it can be redirected towards loving the children we have even more or towards devoting ourselves to His service in other ways. I think, however, that having to use NFP shouldn't make us sorrowful--at least not if it's prayerfully discerned and practiced--since it would be the means by which we would take hold of the brush and, with full knowledge of our gifts and limitations, paint the picture of God's providence in our married lives.