The Generosity of Catholic Family Planning

In a contraceptive culture it is little wonder that natural family planning is often in the Catholic spotlight.  Perhaps it is also little wonder that we accidentally slip into using the secular world’s terms or attitudes when discussing it.  It is well established to anybody willing to hear that NFP is a licit practice.  In fact, it is not merely an acceptable but second rate choice made by second rate Catholics but can and should be undertaken in such a spirit as to be equally receptive to God’s will and lovingly exercise our role in His creation of new life with responsibility and generosity.  However, the question of when and why to avoid pregnancy in particular circumstances can easily become confusing and some of the language surrounding the discussion adds to this.

First, there is a tendency to speak of family planning decisions in the long term.  We consider the overall number of children in a family, or how many years there are between children.  Yet, part of the beauty and challenge of natural fertility awareness is that it deals only in the now.  Every cycle, in some sense every day, one must reexamine the family situation and the possibility of adding another child.  While depending on the reasons for using NFP to avoid pregnancy one may have some idea of how long this will be necessary the question is only ever “what about this child, today?” not “how many children to we want total?” or “what is our five year plan?”.

Second, and quite naturally, we tend to simplify the discussion of reasons to avoid pregnancy.  While the Church remains vague, giving only broad categories for consideration and the requirement our reasons be serious and just, as human beings we want something more concrete and so we list off example after example.  While this is certainly of some use, a good starting place perhaps, it is important to remember that each marriage and each person in a family is unique.  What may be serious and just for one may not be for another.  Furthermore, when we have not experienced certain hardships ourselves we may not consider them, or may underrate their significance.  So by necessity our examples often tend towards the most undeniable and extreme cases so that they are certainly within the acceptable guidelines.  Yet for the couple sincerely seeking God’s will, it can seem like nobody struggles to determine the justice of a given situation.  It seems as if everyone else is dealing in black and white while we sift through a sea of gray.  Medical diagnoses, financial issues, and psychological problems are rarely binary.  The scenarios are not a or b but rather a spectrum.

Where on the range of depression, for example, does it become a legitimate reason to space births?  No buzzer sounds: you are now depressed enough.  How much money is enough money?  Anybody who has managed a family budget knows that expenses are only so predictable.  And many medical conditions do not come with a crystal ball.  A doctor can tell you what may happen, what is likely to happen even, what the statistics say, but what will happen is almost never certain, thank God.  How much strain is a marriage under and how much more can it take?  How much strain will any one pregnancy and child be?  A crystal ball would be very helpful, but they don’t exist.  In all such deliberations we must err on the side of hope not fear, of generosity not selfishness, confident in the belief that in the end God will provide.  But the fact remains, nobody receives a memo saying, you are now allowed to avoid conception.  It is important to acknowledge that, while NFP can certainly be used licitly, the decision is often complex, ever changing, and difficult, requiring much prayer and the advice of priests and other experts.  This should not be discouraging, but a sign that a couple is striving to be as generous and brave as they can be and to make not the easy decision but the right one.

Thirdly, the terminology and tone taken regarding NFP decisions often fails to reflect the true nature of proper fertility management.  Instead it leaves the impression that NFP is merely “Catholic birth control.”  Consider:  We acknowledge the generosity and bravery of the family that chooses to take every baby as it comes without resorting to any child spacing methods.  We also mourn with the couple who experience infertility, unable to have the children they desperately want.  However, when we speak of the families in between, those who must limit the number of children they have, there is a shift.  We tend to discuss their reasons as excuses: legitimate excuses not to have children.  As if they were sort of hoping for an out and luckily they found one.  It is very difficult not to talk about it this way, in fact I have fallen into it within this essay.  Perhaps it is impossible to completely avoid since we do need words like “just causes” and “grave reason.”  Somehow though, it is important not to leave the impression that NFP is about having a good enough excuse to get out of conceiving.  This is unjust to the couples practicing it and also leaves the impression we are not as excited about new life as we purport to be.   (Lucky them, they found a doctor’s note and they’re excused.)

It is natural to sometimes feel a sense of relief at not being pregnant.  Pregnancy can be exhausting and trying.  Some women also feel a sense of relief at the onset of menopause, their work is done.  Openness to life does indeed take great sacrifice and strength.  Yet a couple practicing NFP in the proper spirit are also exhibiting this same sacrifice and strength.  While there is the sense of peace when one feels certainty that a decision is in keeping with God’s will, there can still be great sadness at the decision to avoid pregnancy for a time, or for the remainder of a marriage.  Instead of discussing NFP decisions as reasons, or excuses, we might more properly consider them crosses.  A couple must sacrifice the child they might conceive and in a sense sacrifice their fertility for a time.  They aren’t “off the hook” but rather are being asked to be obedient to God as surely as the couple who conceive another child.

As it becomes more and more evident that I will be among the number of women who cannot have all the children they want without becoming incapable of caring for all the children they have, I am becoming more and more aware of this.  There was a time when I too subconsciously ranked marriages by their fruitfulness and spoke of NFP as some sort of cop out.  What an injustice.  How thoughtless of the difficulty of their decisions and the pain of sacrifices they may be asked to make.  If and when the time comes that I must forgo what is left of my fertility, as I put away the baby clothes for the last time and stow the crib, it will be with great sadness.  I pray that I can do so with the same generosity and obedience that I tried to show in welcoming each of my children, but it will be hard.  To all other couples doing their very best to wade through the twisting ways of faithful fertility management, you are not second rate, you too are generous you too are brave.

Caitlin Marchand

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Caitlin Marchand is a mother of four currently residing in Louisiana where her husband is an Air Force pilot.  She is a graduate of Christendom College and enjoys blogging in her spare time at theunrepeatables.wordpress.com

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  • Jeanine Roselund

    Thank you for this insightful look at NFP. It help me feel better about the choices my husband and I have to make due to my health and finances. Sometimes other Catholics (like my NFP gyne) make me feel guilty about not being more “open” to life. They don’t understand the sacrifices that we make for are three children.

  • CharlesOConnell

    A failure rate of 0.2 pregnancies per 100 women was found in a study of 19,843 women in India.“Natural family planning: Effective Birth Control [sic] Supported by the Catholic Church”. British Medical Journal, Sept 18, 1993 v307 n6906 p723(4) http://showersonwheels.org/british-medical-journal-nfp/

  • Betsy Arlinghaus Marchand

    This is beautiful! From one Marchand to another, thank you for writing this.

  • Kim58

    Wonderful article! I am frustrated at times by my fellow Catholics who seem very militant in their opposition to NFP and tend to act like NFP must never be taught or mentioned out loud. I am 100% supportive of those Catholic families who want to continue to have as many children as they want, but it would also be nice to see them 100% supportive of our choice to use NFP and for them to not be judgmental about our situation and why we had to stop where we did, especially since they don’t know the facts of our situation (of course, it goes without saying if we did find ourselves pregnant we would be happy to welcome that child into our family). I do find it also refreshing in this article to hear an admission that the author’s viewpoint changed once they found themselves at a particular point in their life. This is something that those militantly anti-NFP Catholics need to keep in mind…you don’t know when your situation will change and you might find yourself needing to use NFP to space or indefinitely avoid more births. I wouldn’t negatively judge a fellow Catholic who finds out they need to use NFP…I would hope they can extend the same courtesy back to me. I think if more of the militant anti-NFP Catholics could find it in their hearts to stop making derogatory comments about NFP (like calling it “contraception without the device” and similar type comments), we would all have a better chance of making the rest of our culture more supportive and open to having children. We can’t convince the world that following Jesus will make the world more compassionate place if we ourselves can’t even be compassionate toward our fellow Catholics, particularly towards those Catholics who aren’t violating the Church’s teaching on responsible family planning by using NFP!

  • Eleanor Croy

    I’m one of those Catholics who used to think I’d never do NFP. I looked down my nose at people won “spaced” their kids or thought they “just couldn’t handle” another baby right now. Well, here I am, just a few years later, with 7 kids under age 10, and 6 C-sections under my belt (under my belt! LOL!) Because of complications I’ve had from so many Cs & the fact that I don’t heal up well, along with other reasons… we’re doing NFP. God has a sense of humor. I thank God every day for helping my husband and me to be generous with both our fertility and our self-control. Thanks for the article and the encouragement.

  • Caitlin Marchand

    I like to think of it as ALL of us who do not contracept are practicing NFP. Some of us practice it by avoiding conception for a period of time. Some of us practice it by putting our fertility completely in God’s hands because we are able to do so. Some of us practice it by seeking to achieve a pregnancy. I didn’t know it at the time but I was “using” NFP when I conceived my first two children, before I’d even learned a thing about it. I’m sure some people would be none too thrilled to be considered as NFP practitioners but if we’ve all got the right attitude about it and about children then I think we’re all in the same boat whether we know it or not ;)

  • James

    I think the idea that some Catholics have that NFP is somehow “second rate” comes from the same cultural view that separates the unitive aspect of sex from procreative. This view, which is more Calvinist than Catholic, tends to push the procreative as “more holy” and degrades the unitive aspect. But Catholic teaching is that God designed for the two to go together.

    After looking at quite a few NFP charts posted to an internet forum, I found that most couples are either (1) really really bad at following the rules avoiding pregnancy or (2) rarely have sex, even on clearly infertile days. The remarkable thing is that this pattern holds true for secular couples who use barrier methods during the fertile period as well as Catholics who don’t use any contraception. Their barrier use is as inconsistent as NFP users’ abstinence.

    Happy, healthy couples naturally desire each other sexually and this desire is greatest during the fertile period. The biological purpose of this desire is to get couples make babies and to bond them together to strengthen the family that the child will be raised in. Fighting this desire takes a lot of willpower and psychological energy. It’s extremely difficult to do unless you do have a serious reason to avoid pregnancy.

    Conversely, reduced desire often correlates with relational problems, stress, or hormonal imbalance (subfertility). Furthermore, it seems the couples who have the most problems avoiding are those who are told by others (often a doctor) that they should not become pregnant, but are perfectly happy and feel quite healthy (even if pregnancy is dangerous).

    What this means is while any good thing can be misused (yes, even NFP used to conceive), the idea that large numbers of Catholic couples are abusing NFP to have wild sex lives without having children is simply not based in reality. Odds are the Catholic couple you see at mass with few or no children is either struggling with infertility has a very serious reason to avoid that you don’t know about.

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