Thursday, July 24, 2014

Some Thoughts on Natural Family Planning

I plan to include a few more engaging posts from time to time, and this is the first. Scrolling through Facebook the other day, I saw a link to a piece on Natural Family Planning written by a friend and former fellow parishioner of mine in Texas, on, a pro-life initiative of his. I haven't read much of what he has written. That said, I know him to be a man of integrity and apostolic zeal, and I congratulate him for raising some important points about NFP.

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."

Since my readership isn't necessarily Catholic, let me explain that the Catholic Church holds that the marital act is both unitive and procreative and that these two ends cannot be separated. "A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses," the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment" (2366). Since artificial contraception separates the unitive and procreative ends of marriage, Pope Paul VI definitively prohibited its use in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae but left the door open to natural means of limiting or spacing children. The Catechism elaborates that couples may regulate procreation for "just causes." "It is their [the parents'] duty," the Catechism states, "to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood." Though most Catholics totally--and sadly--ignore the whole debate and blithely follow the wider culture in using artificial contraception, NFP has blossomed from the "Rhythm" method of Paul VI's day into a reputable science. Excellent organizations like the Couple to Couple League are eager to teach the Sympto-Thermal Method, which, by making couples aware of a woman's natural cycle--even an irregular one--can help couples to avoid pregnancy with success that surpasses most forms of artificial contraception. NaProTechnology has achieved far more in recent years, and far more naturally than standard fertility treatments, in terms of helping couples get pregnant.

But the success of natural means of regulating children is precisely the issue for some Catholics, who hold that the Church's focus, especially in marriage preparation, has focused so much on how reliable NFP is vis-à-vis artificial contraception and how easy it is to use that due consideration for matters like God's providence and the discernment of "just causes" has fallen by the wayside. Are NFP practitioners merely naturally contracepting? Is NFP so easy to use that couples are forgetting to rely on God's providence?

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? 

In order to answer these questions, the first issue to address is whether NFP is a natural form of birth control. The problem with the term "birth control" is that using the term implies that the goal is to control birth, whether artificially or naturally. I think that's why the Catechism speaks of "regulation" instead of "control" in speaking favorably of NFP. When we seek to "control" something, we co-opt it and try our best to master and subdue it. When we regulate something, on the other hand, we recognize its capabilities and attempt to channel them appropriately--in accord with reason and prudence. We experience the difference between "control" and "regulation" in small scale, subsistence farming. Rather than subduing the land, pumping it full of nitrogen, and making it yield what we want, we learn about the land's capabilities and adjust the yield accordingly, cooperating with nature rather than co-opting it. The Catechism speaks of NFP in similar terms: "These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom" (2370).

Indeed, a few paragraph earlier the Catechism states that spouses "share in the creative power and fatherhood of God" (2367). Surely there's more to sharing in the creative power of God than engaging in the marital act. Just as the artist moves his brush across the canvass and creates an impression upon it, making use of his own reason and his own artistic sensibilities, so, too, spouses, always open to and cooperating with the gift of life, prayerfully discern God's will in their lives and order their lives accordingly. There's a reason, I think, that the Catechism states that it is "their [the spouses'] duty" to ensure that their periodic continence is not motivated by selfishness. Who knows better than the couples themselves what they facing? Loss of job or income, serious medical problems--these will look different for different couples, and there is little doubt that couples in the mix of life's problems and turmoils might be too cautious. But then again, so-called "providentialism" is prone, in a similar way, to overconfidence. I suggest that we not use reliance on providence as an excuse not to exercise our God-given reason and prudence.

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.

1 comment:

  1. You provide an excellent analysis and a balanced conclusion.

    Mr. Kukla, in his article, cites Humanae Vitae in a common and problematic way by stripping the passage of 16 from its context. Here is where 16 starts:

    "Now as We noted earlier (no. 3), some people today raise the objection against this particular doctrine of the Church concerning the moral laws governing marriage, that human intelligence has both the right and responsibility to control those forces of irrational nature which come within its ambit and to direct them toward ends beneficial to man. Others ask on the same point whether it is not reasonable in so many cases to use artificial birth control if by so doing the harmony and peace of a family are better served and more suitable conditions are provided for the education of children already born. To this question We must give a clear reply. The Church is the first to praise and commend the application of human intelligence to an activity in which a rational creature such as man is so closely associated with his Creator. But she affirms that this must be done within the limits of the order of reality established by God."

    Then the pope says:

    "If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained."

    Your post here brings in that same context. The application of one's rationality to the procreative activity is in no way problematic; it is rather the special way we - as rational creatures - are called to participate in God's Providence. Thanks for the post.