NFP, Suffering, and Asceticism

Recently I wrote about how NFP is not good in and of itself, but rather can be good when used with virtue and faithfulness. I wanted to follow up that article by discussing the real suffering that many couples endure because of NFP and why that suffering is also not good.

Before we address NFP specifically it’s important to step back and talk about suffering. I think Christians sometimes forget that pain and suffering are objectively evil. Not morally evil, but rather evil in their nature. Saint John Paul II teaches this in section seven of his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris. He says:

“Christianity proclaims the essential good of existence and the good of that which exists, acknowledges the goodness of the Creator and proclaims the good of creatures. Man suffers on account of evil, which is a certain lack, limitation or distortion of good. We could say that man suffers because of a good in which he does not share, from which in a certain sense he is cut off, or of which he has deprived himself. He particularly suffers when he a ought”—in the normal order of things—to have a share in this good and does not have it.”

Suffering is evil, that is, the lack of a due good. Suffering ought not be and only exists because we live in a cosmos fractured by sin. God did not create suffering but He allows it because he respects our freedom. Our bodies and minds are supposed to be whole and integrated, but because the physical world we live in is limited and because human beings have a knack for inflicting suffering on others, we experience illness, suffering, and death (CCC 385 and 405).

Therefore,  not only is it good to avoid suffering and seek consolation, but it’s a moral obligation to comfort others and help alleviate their suffering. However, because of our broken world, we will inevitably encounter suffering that is unavoidable. As Christians though, we believe in a God who not only stoops to our level and suffers with us (which is an incredible thing in itself), but who also allows us to give our suffering meaning by uniting it with his suffering for the sake of others. Paragraph 618 of the Catechism says:

“The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the “one mediator between God and men”. But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, “the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” is offered to all men. He calls his disciples to “take up [their] cross and follow [him]”, for “Christ also suffered for [us], leaving [us] an example so that [we] should follow in his steps.”

And if we follow after this Suffering Lord, we are promised not only restoration of body and mind, but resurrection. We are destined to “share in the divinity of Christ” and become “partakers of the divine nature.” For the reason that God became man was so that man may become God (CCC 460).

Now let’s get back to NFP. I have heard it argued that NFP is good because, in order to practice it effectively, it requires discipline and self-denial. That it’s a kind of asceticism, something required to live out our baptism and something essential for growing in holiness (CCC 2340 and 2015). Blessed Paul VI discusses the value of self-discipline in Humanae Vitae:

“The right and lawful ordering of birth demands, first of all, that spouses fully recognize and value the true blessings of family life and that they acquire complete mastery over themselves and their emotions. For if with the aid of reason and of free will they are to control their natural drives, there can be no doubt at all of the need for self-denial. Only then will the expression of love, essential to married life, conform to right order. This is especially clear in the practice of periodic continence. Self-discipline of this kind is a shining witness to the chastity of husband and wife and, far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character. And if this self-discipline does demand that they persevere in their purpose and efforts, it has at the same time the salutary effect of enabling husband and wife to develop to their personalities and to be enriched with spiritual blessings” (HV 21, emphasis mine).

At first glance this passage appears to be saying that the abstinence caused by NFP is good because this kind of asceticism has a whole host of positive fruits for marriages and families. However, a closer look will reveal that’s not the case for two reasons.

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

First, Pope Paul is specifically talking about “periodic continence.” However, periodically abstaining from sex is vastly different from the prolonged abstinence that isn’t uncommon with NFP. As I shared in another recent article, I have talked with multiple friends (who have instructors and are healthcare professionals themselves) who regularly abstain for months during postpartum in order to avoid getting pregnant again right away. Not to mention the years of indefinite abstinence required by couples who, for any number of serious reasons, absolutely cannot get pregnant again and have abnormal cycles that make effectively using NFP impossible. These scenarios are far from “periodic continence” and that kind of abstinence can damage a marriage. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council directly admit this in Gaudium et Spes:

“This council realizes that certain modern conditions often keep couples from arranging their married lives harmoniously, and that they find themselves in circumstances where at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased. As a result, the faithful exercise of love and the full intimacy of their lives is hard to maintain. But where the intimacy of married life is broken off, its faithfulness can sometimes be imperiled and its quality of fruitfulness ruined, for then the upbringing of the children and the courage to accept new ones are both endangered” (GS 51).

In other words, long periods of abstinence due to the necessity of avoiding pregnancy have the possibility of damaging the  vows of faithfulness and fruitfulness in that marriage. And while long term abstinence is at times necessary, it is still evil. It ought not be. Marriage is “ordered by its nature” to sex (Canon 1061). Just like we were not made to be infertile, our bodies were not meant to have medical conditions that prevent us from sexual intercourse. God’s plan was not for spouses to have long periods of abstinence for “it is not good that man should be alone.” Whether it’s because of NFP or because of a tragic accident, we rightly recognize this kind of prolonged abstinence as a tragedy and we should be doing everything we can to alleviate that suffering.  

The second thing to point out from that passage from Pope Paul VI is that while the “periodic continence” he is talking about may be a form of asceticism, circumstance where abstinence is absolutely necessary for serious reasons is not asceticism. Asceticism is not forced, it is freely chosen. Just as it is the freedom to act or not to act that makes man responsible for his sins, it is that same freedom that makes man’s acts of virtue and asceticism meritorious. Paragraph 1734 of the Catechism says, “Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary.” Now, because of God’s infinite love and mercy, one can freely choose to take up their cross and offer their inescapable suffering to Christ, but in of it itself forced periods of prolonged or indefinite abstinence are not good or meritorious, they are evil.

We need to end the myth that just by practicing NFP a marriage will be better or a couple will be happier or more virtuous. We need to stop selling NFP as an elixir that will automatically bring you closer to your spouse. I know those of us who use and promote NFP are swimming upstream in a culture that accepts contraception without question, but we can’t let that make us so defensive that we reject any and all criticism of NFP. If we only speak about NFP in glowing terms then those who legitimately suffer from it will not only feel like they were lied to, but they will feel alienated, like something is wrong with them. NFP isn’t good enough, and if we want it to get better we need to stop pretending that there’s nothing wrong with it and that people who use it aren’t truly suffering.  

 

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles, read his work at Where Peter Isor follow him on Facebook.

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The Myth of the Contraceptive Mentality

If you have run in Natural Family Planning (NFP) circles you have likely come across an idea that I’m going to call (though I’m not the first person to use this term) “providentialism.” This is the idea that Catholic couples should completely rely on God’s providence when it comes to how many children to have. I am not here to criticize couples who are providentialist. God does indeed call all of us to trust in His providence (see Matthew 6:22-34), and He calls some people to live that out in a radical way. What I want to talk about is when folks take the particular path that they believe God has called them to and then try to impose it on others.

This providentialist perspective I mentioned is often, bot not always, accompanied by the belief that there’s a grave moral obligation for a couple to have as many children as possible outside from life threatening health problems . This belief, in turn, gives rise to the infamous evil of “contraceptive intent” or a “contraceptive mentality.” It is these false ideas, that are regularly used as a way to judge or shame other people, that I want to address.

I have seen people who believe that there’s a grave moral obligation to have as many kids as possible cite Pope Paul VI’s famous encyclical, Humanae Vitae, to justify this idea. The pope said that the decision to not “have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time” should be motivated by “serious reasons” (HV 10). The argument goes something like: If the Church says that we need serious reasons to avoid pregnancy, then there must be a moral obligation to have as many kids as possible outside of extraordinary circumstances.

The problem with this argument is that it fails to take into account the rest of what Pope Paul VI says in that encyclical. In that same section, the Holy Father said the following about the need for couples to be responsible parents:


“With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.”

In other words, there are a number of reasons besides grave health issues to avoid having another child, including the “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions” of one’s family. These are what the Church would define as “serious reasons.” Furthermore, later in the encyclical, the pope appears to change his tone and says that couples can use the infertile time to avoid pregnancy (NFP) for “well-grounded reasons,” “acceptable reasons,” or even just “reasonable motives” (HV 16). Something being “reasonable” is a noticeably lower bar than something being “serious.” Essentially, the Church wants couples to err on the side of having kids unless they have a reasonable reason not to. This isn’t a matter of grave sin.

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[Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash]

Next I want to address the all too common belief in such a thing as “contraceptive intent” or a “contraceptive mentality.” This idea can be summarized as thinking that a couple who intentionally avoids having sex during fertile periods, for less than grave reasons, in order to avoid getting pregnant is guilty of “contraceptive intent,” a grave sin, the spiritual brother to actually using contraception. In other words, any couple that uses NFP to avoid getting pregnant, unless they are in extraordinary circumstances, has a “contraceptive mentality.”

However, this belief isn’t consistent with Humanae Vitae either. Pope Paul said:

“Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love” (HV 16).

Three things to note in this passage.

  1. The reason contraception is evil is not because of an intent to avoid children, but because it obstructs the “generative process.” I.e. “…any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation” (HV 14).
  2. Pope Paul VI readily acknowledges that couples who “take advantage of the infertile period” are doing so with the “intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result.”
  3. He then praises those couples saying, “In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love.”

In other words, the intention to not have kids is not “contraceptive intent” unless there’s the intention to actually use contraception. Deliberately avoiding sex during fertile periods isn’t anything like the evil of contraception. Rather, according to Pope Paul, it’s “proof of a true and authentic love.”

Making up new sins like “contraceptive intent” and then judging others for them is an offense to both truth and charity. Catholics who are living out the teaching of Humanae Vitae should be applauded and supported. They are swimming upstream in our current culture. They have taken the burden of the moral law upon themselves and yoked their marriage and family to Christ and the Church. But instead of encouraging them, fellow Catholics will bash them from the left flank as the fight in the front. We need to keep our personal pieties and moral preferences to ourselves and stop wielding them as weapons to cut down our brothers and sisters.

As we begin the great season of Lent, let’s take the prayer of St. Ephrem to heart: Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother, since you are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen.

 

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles, read his articles at Where Peter Isor follow him on Facebook.

Schools of Unconditional Love

My wife, Kristina, and I were blessed to be able to attend the World Meeting of Families conference back in 2015. The wonderful Professor Helen Alvaré gave one of the keynote talks during that week that really struck me.

Professor Alvaré was talking about how the love we give and receive within the family grows and overflows into the wider world. Specifically, she spoke on how a parent’s unconditional love for their child “organically and divinely” grows into the unconditional love of strangers. She said:

Eventually, if you have asked God day in and day out to work His will with you, you begin to see every child as if they could be your child…You won’t be able to look at the homeless, the sick, the depressed, the fatherless, without remembering how they are someone’s child or sibling or mother and then converting that co-suffering converting your maternal and paternal selves into action.

This comment resonated with me at the time and still resonates with me now.

Just a few weeks before this conference started, there was a picture of a little boy that was circulating online. The boy was three years old in this picture, just a little older than Simon, my eldest son. In the picture he was lying down with his knees tucked under him, his arms off to his sides, and his head full of light brown hair turned sideways. It looked just like Simon when he slept.

Except this little boy wasn’t sleeping in this picture, he was lying on a Mediterranean beach after drowning in the Aegean Sea. His name was Aylan Kurdi, and his family were refugees fleeing Syria.

I remember staring at this picture when it came across my newsfeed and it totally captivated me. This little boy reminded me so much of Simon. I realized at that moment that this little boy, Aylan, was loved by somebody as much as I love my own son. Aylan smiled and laughed and cried and played like my own son. Aylan drowned in the Aegean Sea along with his brother and mother because his dad wasn’t able to hold onto them. I just sat in front of my computer and cried.

 

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Aylan Kurdi – Daily Mail, “Daddy, please don’t die”
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3223447/Daddy-don-t-die-Drowned-Aylan-Kurdi-s-tragic-words.html

We’re supposed to see Christ in others, because all of us bear the image of God. We are especially supposed to see Christ in the poor and the hungry and the homeless and the refugee because He said, “Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me.”

But that’s really hard to do.

I mean, Saint Mother Teresa saw Jesus in the poor, but she’s a saint! The best I can muster up when I see a beggar is pity…not the love and respect due to our Lord. Yet God is so wise. He knows that it’s hard for us to see His image in the stranger, so He gave us our families to be training grounds for unconditional love. He lets us first see every child as if they could be our child so that we may eventually learn to love the outcast like we love our own children. He gave us our family as a school of love.

As a Christian, I must resist looking at the poor, the homeless, and the refugee as “people,” as an abstract group or “issue.” I must see every human person for the unique and valuable individual that he or she is. I must see the poor as I would see my own family. I must love the homeless as I would my own family. I must treat the refugee as if they were my own family.

As Professor Alvaré put it, “We start with family and end with strangers in need whose only link is our common humanity.” Go love your family, and let that love overflow into the whole world.

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles or follow him on Facebook.