The Personalist Project

I’m not the type The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning was written for. I mean, I’m a sinner, but I don’t hate NFP. I’ve never struggled with it or resented it. Jules and I had so much happy exposure to Dietrich von Hildebrand and John Paul II before we got married that we were never even tempted to use artificial contraception.  We saw too clearly that it’s a destroyer of life and love.

We did fall under the influence of Providentialism for a little while.  But it wasn’t long before we detected its error. It isn’t the teaching of the Church; it’s a rigorist “adding to the law.” The actual law is much more merciful and sympathetic to the real challenges and stresses of family life in the modern world. So, my main attitude toward NFP throughout marriage has been one of immense admiration and gratitude for the gift. Which isn’t to say there aren’t moments—of course there are—when having to stick with it is frustrating. But that’s true of everything worthwhile, isn’t it?

I don’t think of myself as one of those “sunshine and buttercups” NFP boosters either. I’ve defended it in the public arena against Providentialist aggression, but I don’t gush over it. I’ve never taught it—because I can’t bear to discuss my sex life at all with strangers (it’s hard enough to discuss it with my husband) and I can’t bring myself to say “mucus” out loud in mixed company.  But I have generally taken it for granted that couples who use it must love it as I do—love the awareness it brings of the mysterious workings of the female body, love the transcendence over selfish desire that it inculcates in both spouses, love the sense of freedom and responsibility that goes with the conscious stewardship of the procreative power of our union. I love that I regularly experience my husband denying himself out of loving concern for me and our family. I love that I’ve been married nearly 25 years and I still am given to feel month by month a kind of impatience of ardor, and the goodness of delayed desire finally fulfilled. I love that I remember exactly where and when each of my five children was conceived… 

Whenever I think about NFP I feel like I so often feel when enjoying a great meal, or a piece of chocolate, or a glass of wine. “God didn’t have to do this! He could have made us to eat grass. He could have had it so that we don’t eat at all. Instead, He spreads out this fabulous, endless array of deliciousness for us to enjoy day by day.”  God didn’t have to design the female body with detectable rhythms of fertility and infertility.  He didn’t have to make it so that the same act that engenders new persons draws the spouses to each other in love and desire, transporting them with pleasure, filling them with consolation, and deepening their union, whether or not a child is conceived. But He did, praise Him. “Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us!”

Maybe that is a little sunshiny buttercups. But anyway, it’s my experience.

Until I read this book, I honestly didn’t know that there were so many couples out there who really struggle with NFP.  I knew it calls for some discipline, which of course nobody loves. I knew that you can get confused about where you are in your cycle—especially when you’re nursing a baby or a toddler—and end up with an unexpected pregnancy. Or, you can just cave in to the want of the moment against your better judgment. But that’s just life, right? “Failure” happens with contraception too. And if a baby comes in spite of your intention to postpone pregnancy, well, the general life-affirming attitude of NFP makes it easy to remind yourself that God will provide, and you’ll never regret it afterwards. (Also, it helps to get you more serious about that discipline part the next time around.) 

I didn't know that for some couples, NFP can be a serious hardship and a strain on the marriage. I hadn't noticed that for those people, the NFP happy talk can be depressing and aggravating—a stumbling block, not a help.

Simcha has opened my eyes to human suffering going on all around me that I had been totally oblivious to. It’s good to be healed of obtuseness. It opens us to Truth and to others in a new way, at a new depth.

Her book has changed my understanding of the Faith the way it works in the world, and the way we ought to be communicating it. It has helped cause in me exactly the shift I think Pope Francis is calling for on the part of the Church as a whole. If we want the world to hear our message of hope, it’s important that we don't offer it like self-appointed and self-satisfied instructors explaining what others need to do to be more like us. We have to present ourselves as fellow sinners who understand and sympathize with the miseries of being human, because that’s us.

The Sinner's Guide to NFP is funny and warm, utterly human, and completely down to earth, without being too crude. If you struggle with NFP, get it so you know you're not alone and can be encouraged. If you don't struggle with NFP, because it's easy for you, or because you're a priest maybe, get it to get real.

Comments (41)

Patrick Dunn

#1, Dec 4, 2013 2:34pm

It seems to me "Providentialism" - as an official, hardline stance on the matter - errs because it rules out any legitimate use of NFP, ever. 

That said, I think there are good reasons to be suspicious of NFP wholesale, as discussed here.

Most deeply, where does the role of trust in Divine Providence come into play?  That's one of the central spiritual struggles we all face, I think, no matter the circumstances.  Married couples will probably have no better chance to draw nearer to God in total abandonment to Him than in the 'planning' of their families. 

I also do not understand the thinking that, "if a baby comes in spite of your intention to postpone pregnancy, well, the general life-affirming attitude of NFP makes it easy to remind yourself that God will provide."  Not that God will not provide then, but, why not trust Him in the very first place, or at least challenge ourselves and others to do the same?  Grave reasons aside, why do something to try to postpone pregnancy? 

It would seem to require even more of couples to ask them to trust God all of a sudden, when pregnant, than before.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Dec 4, 2013 2:51pm

Think of a captain of a ship in a storm. Would he a better, more religious captain if he lets go of the tiller and "trusts God" to steer the ship?

I think think the answer is no, except in one circumstance, namely, one wherein he hears God tell him, "Let go." Otherwise, he should bring his all knowledge and experience to bear and steer as seems to him best.

Think of a farmer.  Does he "trust God" to decide what fields will yield which crops, or does he sow one thing here and another there, while he lets a third field lie fallow for a season?

Husbands and wives aren't just objects of God's creative intention.  We are, according to His will and design, agents of our own procreativity.

Patrick Dunn

#3, Dec 4, 2013 3:31pm

My understanding is that couples vow to be open to life.  I am not aware of any qualifications placed upon that call to openess by the Church.  It seems to me that, inherent in the spirituality of the wedding vow, is trustful surrender to Divine Providence.

By virtue of their own decision to have sexual intercourse, couples are, or ought to be, taking responsibility for what may occur (preganancy).  They are not letting go of a tiller; they are operning themselves up to God's potentially procreative action, with their cooperation.  It's part of the very nature of the act itself. 

"To accept children lovingly from God" puts our own agency in the procreativity within a certain context, the same context that is consistent with all true Christian spirituality: we are to seek His will, not our own.  As agents of our own procreativity, we are not to shut Him out. To vow to be open to life and then to do something deliberately to prevent conception, unless there is a grave reason otherwise, seems to me to do just that.  My understanding is that this has always been the teaching of the Church. 

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Dec 5, 2013 4:20am

Yes, every married couple promises to be open to children and to receive children generously. And every conjugal act must be open (i.e. not artificially closed).  If a pregnancy occurs, the child is to be received as a gift, cherished, cared for and educated.  

A couple cannot licitly refuse children. A couple cannot artificially prevent children, either through contraception or through sterilization.

Yes, as with all human acts, our agency is embedded within the higher and deeper agency of God.  When a new person comes into existence, God always is the prime Creator.  

Do you see a disagreement somewhere?

Patrick Dunn

#5, Dec 5, 2013 8:32am

It depends on how the purposes of NFP are understood.  If taken, as I believe the Church intends, as a means to avoid pregnancy for grave reasons, then no.  If NFP however is taken as a 'lifestyle' where the openess to children is put on par with other pursuits, then yes: it is the contraceptive mentality at work.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Dec 5, 2013 11:54am

I know there may be some couples who use NFP that way, but personally, I find it hard to imagine.

Generally speaking, to forego birth control and choose NFP, because it's the only licit means of spacing children, is to be a morally serious, pro-life  person. To willingly accept the sacrificies and discipline involved NFP is to be committed to right values.

Selfish, superficial, or irreligious people are unlikely to put up with it.

Again, I don't say it's impossible, just unlikely.

I think this is a big part of the explanation for why the percentage of couples who use NFP getting divorced is so miniscule. People who use NFP are (broadly speaking) people who are serious about the Church's teaching on marriage and sexuality—not just in its "negative" aspect (what's not allowed), but also in its positive aspect (life is good; children are a gift, etc.)  They also, on average, have a lot more kids than couples who practice birth control, which stands to reason, because NFP is essentially life affirming.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#7, Dec 13, 2013 11:16am

I'm late to this discussion, but Patrick, this:

"By virtue of their own decision to have sexual intercourse, couples are, or ought to be, taking responsibility for what may occur (preganancy). " at the core of the practice of NFP. NFP is not indulgence, it is, at it's heart, self-denial. A form of self-denial which Church teaching recognizes as an admirable form of self-sacrificial prudence in cases when a couple discerns that it would do a disservice to the child or the family to indiscriminately invite pregnancy at a particular point in a couple's married life. 

I think the terminology of 'contraceptive mentality' does a disservice to everyone in these discussions by conflating two different issues: selfishness (which may be sinful, but not necessarily grave matter), and contraception (which is an act which constitutes grave matter, and, when intentionality and knowledge are present, may constitute moral sin). 

A couple may use NFP selfishly, though I would agree with Katie that it doesn't seem to be the greatest risk out there. But they cannot use NFP contraceptively because NFP does not, in fact, in any way interfere with the nature and form of the marital act.


Patrick Dunn

#8, Dec 16, 2013 10:17am


My understanding is that NFP can be legitmately used for a time if the reason is sufficiently grave, but not as a general means of limiting the number of children a couple may have. Whether or not we agree would depend, I think, on whether the cases you refer to where a coupld discerns that it would do a disservice to the child or family are for reasons that are sufficiently grave.  

Pius XII stated in his allocution to midwives of 1951 : “to embrace the matrimonial state, to use continually the faculty proper to such a state and lawful only therein, and, at the same time, to avoid its primary duty without a grave reason, would be a sin against the very nature of married life.” 

Whether that "sin" would be a moral one or not is unclear to me.

After some reading, I think we should be prudent in promoting NFP, for:

-"by emphasizing the exception and what essentially is a negative – as opposed to the rule and what is essentially the positive – we have given unnecessary credence to the contraception zealots," conceding that we should be "responsible parents," and undermining the role of faith and grace

Patrick Dunn

#9, Dec 16, 2013 10:21am

And, "NFP as a movement has utterly failed in its intended mission to present a viable alternative to a contraception-crazed world."

I think too that we've lost sight of the 'default' position that married couples ought to take in regards to having children: that the Church assumes and expects them, grave reasons aside, to be open to life.  That is, as I said prior, intrinsic to the marital vows and the spirituality of married life.  Procreation is the "end" of marriage, and it has been subordinated, falsely, to other "values" in some cases.  That the conception that NFP could even be put along side of a sense of Providentialism (but not that form which would never allow for NFP under any circumstances) seems to be a distortion.

Katie van Schaijik

#10, Dec 16, 2013 11:57am

It's interesting that you refer to Pius XII, who's statements preceded Humanae Vitae and John Paul's beautiful and elaborate teachings on conjugal life.

I don't have the exact reference, but I remember clearly his saying in the 90's (because I was fighting providentialism even then) that being open to children doesn't mean having as many children as we biologically can, or having them "without a plan."

According to HV, NFP can be used "indefinitely" and for a host of reasons, including health, psychological, economic and other reasons—including even concerns about excessive population growth. (!)

Patrick Dunn

#11, Dec 16, 2013 12:30pm

HV says, speaking of responsible parenthood: "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."

Are you saying that HV contradicts past Church moral teaching on the matter?  That would be problematic for a variety of reasons.

HV goes on to say, speaking of the husband and wife: "they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out."

Katie van Schaijik

#12, Dec 16, 2013 4:03pm

Of course HV doesn't contradict early teaching! Rather, it expands and clarifies it.

Katie van Schaijik

#13, Dec 16, 2013 4:18pm

Before new discoveries in modern science, the only licit means of posponing or avoiding childbirth was total abstinence (something very hard on a marriage.)

Before modern developments in philosophy and culture, including, for instance, the philosophy of Dietrich von Hildebrand, Catholic teaching laid very heavy stress on the duty of procreation; it tended (culturally at least) to neglect the role of love in marriage. In the modern period, we have been the beneficiaries of a deepening understanding of the unitive value of sex.

These two things (along with us) bring up sincere questions for the faithful.

Is it okay to use birth control in some circumstances? Is it okay to limit the number of children we have? etc.

The Church listens to these questions; she interrogates the experience of the faithful; she ponders anew, and she answers.

Is is not okay, ever, to use artificial birth control.  It is okay to use NFP for a host of reasons, provided it used with due moral seriousness, prayerfully, and with a generous sense of what's owed to God, to one another, and to society.

JP II went farther, expressing at length the way NFP is a great good in marriage.

Katie van Schaijik

#14, Dec 17, 2013 6:13am

I'm sorry for all the typos. We haven't been able to figure out why the edit function isn't working.

Patrick Dunn

#15, Dec 17, 2013 10:28am

It’s the different emphasis which is a cause of confusion: how could it be that, at one time, primacy was given to the procreative end, but later, procreation has been put on par with the good of the spouses?  This is an expansion, which I can see from one angle, and yet how is it not also in contrast to what was taught as the primary end in the past?  That's a monumental change in perspective, isn’t it, with far-reaching implications?

How do we know this is a valid development, consistent with Tradition, and not a rupture?  Doesn't HV need to be read in light of past teachings of the same magisterial weight?

Patrick Dunn

#16, Dec 17, 2013 10:28am

Another point: NFP is okay to use for a host of reasons.  The catechism uses the term “just reasons.”  HV used the term “serious reasons” and Popes before that used “grave” (ex.: “to embrace the matrimonial state, to use continually the faculty proper to such a state and lawful only therein, and, at the same time, to avoid its primary duty without a grave reason, would be a sin against the very nature of married life.” Pius XII)  Again, I think the shift is monumental.  If it is a great good, I’d like to understand how and why.  Could you point to where JP II spoke or wrote of this? 

Katie van Schaijik

#17, Dec 17, 2013 11:03am

Present teachings interpret past teachings.  That's how it works in a living tradition.  We know that it's a legitimate development, because it's been authoritatively promulgated by the Pope and it's been received as legitimate by the faithful.  It is substantively the same teaching it's always been.  Children are still the prime end of marriage.  That hasn't changed.  All that's changed is that another aspect of the truth about marriage has been drawn further into the light.  A too-heavy pastoral emphasis on the duty to procreate has been balanced by a different pastoral emphasis.

Love and Responsibility, if I'm remembering rightly, includes a section on the great goods of NFP.  Among them are a greater knowledge of and respect for the woman's body, a more conscious collaboration in the procreativity of the spousal union, a habit of communication between husband and wife, a habit of discipline and sacrifice in the conjugal relation, and the goods that come to parents and children both from having parents who are not exhausted and overwhelmed.

The Catholic couples who practice NFP consistently testify to its benefits.

Patrick Dunn

#18, Dec 17, 2013 2:06pm

Isn't it the other way around?  My understanding is that present teachings are interpreted in light of past teachings.  Present teachings can clarify aspects of past teachings, but present teachings need to be reconciled with the past teachings.  Tradition by its very nature is something we receive from the past, from the Apostles ultimately.  Present teachings come organically from the existing teachings.

Also, if present teachings interpret past ones, how to interpret present ones when they are present (current)?  It would seem that teaching is always fluid, then, and we can never ‘arrive’ at the meaning of a present teaching (when present).

If the goods of NFP were indeed spelled out in L&R, then that’s the judgment of a private theologian, and not that of a Pope speaking authoritatively.   The judgment may be sound, but in itself it has no relationship with magisterial teaching as such, does it?

Katie van Schaijik

#19, Dec 18, 2013 2:02am

It works both ways. Present teachings have to be justified on the ground of past teachings. Developments have to be shown to be organic. 

But new teachings influence our understanding of what has come before. They provide the true interpretation of what has gone before. We understand Vatican I's teaching on conscience better and more fully in light of Vatican II's teaching on conscience.

So, for example, when a mustard bush breaks out in leaves, we understand a potency of the seed in a new way. We don't cut off the leaves, because the seed didn't have any.

The Church doesn't just sit on her patrimony, protecting it from corruption. She offers it to the world; she watches it unfold in the world; she interprets it constantly in light of human experience and Christian reflection.

John Paul II is the same man as Karol Wojtyla. And Wojtyal was a major influence on Humanae Vitae.  He then, as Pope, composed the highly important Theology of the Body.

Hence, if we want to understand the mind of the Church on the issue of NFP, it makes sense to study Wojtyla's thought. 

Katie van Schaijik

#20, Dec 18, 2013 2:18am

There is a perfect coherence between HV, the theological and philosophical reflections of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II, and the experience of lay faithful who practice NFP.

The resistance to it among traditionalists seems to me strange.

Here's a passage from HV. [my bold]

With regard to the biological processes, responsible parenthood means an awareness of, and respect for, their proper functions. In the procreative faculty the human mind discerns biological laws that apply to the human person. (9)

This is among the goods of NFP. It increases responsible awareness of and respect for the functions of a woman's body.

Here's another:

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.

The Church praises and commends NFP. (Would she praise and condemn something dangerous and risky and morally suspect?)

Here's more:

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.

Katie van Schaijik

#21, Dec 18, 2013 2:22am

So, in practicing NFP couples "give proof of a true and authentic love."

I call that "a good" for marriage, don't you?

But wait, there's more!

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.

To treat NFP as morally dubious except in very grave circumstance is to be very unlike the Church.

Patrick Dunn

#22, Dec 18, 2013 9:45am

When the Church used to teach, for instance, that there is "no salvation outside the Church" without any further qualifications, it was just as clear then as it is now what the Church meant by that.  What the Church teaches now about the matter does not "interpret" what the Church taught then.  It required no "interpretation".  The fact is that the teaching has developed.  It has, in a significant way, changed, with far-reaching implications.  It is more nuanced. 

There is a difference between saying NFP, as such, is a great good for marriage, and saying that "true and authentic love" is a great good for marriage.  NFP can be misused.  It seems to me that Holy Father in HV is assuming the best, the virtuous, of the practicioners of NFP.  But to understand in a more objective way the right application of NFP, it seems to me that some explanation of the context in which it ought to be used is necessary.


Patrick Dunn

#23, Dec 18, 2013 9:46am

For, as I wrote earlier, at one time, the Church did speak in terms of “grave” or “serious” reasons.  To be of such a mind, then, at least for at time, was not to be unlike the Church.  Then, in HV, we see the use of “serious reasons” in one place and then, in another,

“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…”.

I think the context in which NFP is permitted is important, and I am wondering if that context has changed from the pre-HV era to the post-HV era.  It seems to me that the reasons were more clearly spelled out pre-HV than they were in HV and since.  What has emerged, it seems, is a mindset among some Catholics that NFP can be used “indefinitely” without any further qualification, and so the initial context of grave or serious reasons (which would allow for that indefinite use) has been lost, which has led, in practice, to a distortion of that original teaching on the matter. 

Katie van Schaijik

#24, Dec 18, 2013 10:08am

What has emerged, it seems, is a mindset among some Catholics that NFP can be used “indefinitely” without any further qualification, and so the initial context of grave or serious reasons (which would allow for that indefinite use) has been lost, which has led, in practice, to a distortion of that original teaching on the matter.

As I said above, I don't know anyone who thinks this. Can you support the claim with concrete examples?  I mean with examples of reputable Catholics who think NFP can be used for less than serious reasons?

Patrick Dunn

#25, Dec 18, 2013 11:51am

Whether the Catholics are reputable or not is to beg the question I think, but they are somewhat well-known at least, and by virtue of their publishing and other communications on the matter, are at least potentially influential.

An example: a Catholic who considers NFP not primarily as a means of spacing children, but rather a broader spiritual exercise, one of the benefits of which is to help the couple prayerfully discern their family size. 

That is to take the application of human intelligence to an activity in which a rational creature such as man is so closely associated with his Creator to another level, I think.  It is to take the 'planning' into one's own hands, in a sense.  The fact that it's done "prayerfully" is not necessarily of any consolation for there are many matters on which the Church is clear and that some Catholics have decided against the Church on, albeit, we're told, because of their prayer, their good faith, their conscience, etc. 

To open up NFP wholesale as a matter always and everywhere of "prayer", without the more limiting context in the which the Church, in my understanding, spoke of it, is a fundamental difference.

Patrick Dunn

#26, Dec 18, 2013 11:52am

To me, the rationale for NFP has been subverted, and a subjectivist, somewhat modern tendency to ‘plan’ has crept in, when intrinsic to the very spirituality of the marriage vow and call from the Church to be open to life, to be “fruitful and multiply,” is a level of abandonment to God’s Providence—the assumption being that the ‘default’ stance of the married couple is such openness, though those with grave or serious or well-grounded reasons would be the exception, and then, for them, the question of the use of NFP is on the table.  This differs from seeing NFP as itself a form of ongoing marrital spirituality.

I also think it’s ironic that some proponents of NFP who value it because of its recognition that we are fallen, concupiscent and yet called to the sacrifices that the practice demands, do not seem to guard against how our being fallen can even influence our ‘discernment’ of family size in the first place. 

Katie van Schaijik

#27, Dec 19, 2013 7:41am

By "reputable Catholics", I mean Catholics who have made known their commitment to orthodoxy and who have some public influence.  In other words, Catholics who don't consider themselves bound by Church teaching don't count. Neither does a random person spouting off. I'm looking for you to offer a concrete example of a Catholic who publicly argues that NFP can be used for less than serious reasons. As I said, I don't know anyone who thinks this.

And of course it's not enough in a forum like this for you to just say you know of such; I'm challenging you to show it—to quote or link to a book or article arguing that Catholics don't need serious reasons to practice NFP.

(Please note that the Church nowhere says that NFP can't be used for any reason except to postpone childbirth. It can also be used as a spiritual discipline, like fasting, and it can be used in seeking childbirth.)

It seems to me, Patrick, that you don't like the teaching of the Church in this regard. It seems to me that you want it to be other than what it is. You seem to want the Church to say things she doesn't.


Katie van Schaijik

#28, Dec 19, 2013 7:46am

If NFP were morally hazardous, wouldn't the Church say so? HV was promulgated more than 40 years ago. The Church has focused a lot of theological and pastoral attention on marriage, sexuality, and family life during those decades. If NFP were being as widely misused as traditionalists seem to think is, why wouldn't the Church have clarified? Why not say things like,

"Child-bearing is the default mode for Catholic marriages during the fertile years." Or, "Unless couples have a very serious reason for avoiding pregnancy, they have a duty not to avoid it."  Or, "NFP is being used too frequently." 

But she says nothing like this, does she?

Patrick Dunn

#29, Dec 19, 2013 12:10pm

For a concrete example, you can search for “When NFP is ‘Too Hard’” by Gregory Popcak.  I’m unable to link directly to the article as the version I found online is in Word format.  The topic also came up recently on another well-known blog by a Catholic.

In fact, what I’ve been seeking throughout is to know what the Church actually does say about NFP, specifically in what context it is permissible. 

The whole of HV is a response, most prominently, to modern man’s attempt to exert “control” in unprecedented ways.  The document seeks to address this development, both doctrinally and pastorally, as it pertains to marriage and especially the transmission of human life. To listen to or to read some Catholics, it’s as if the Church has offered an unqualified endorsement of NFP, or proposed it as a pillar of marital spirituality.  It is as if the document itself is centered on the merits of having recourse to infertile periods. 

Patrick Dunn

#30, Dec 19, 2013 12:10pm

Actually, what is most pressing in HV is the re-affirmation of the immorality and dangers of artificial birth control; a number of arguments for holding this position; and a call to obedience to this authoritative teaching.  Along with this, there is the discussion of responsible parenthood with the consistent reference to the context of spacing births, especially in the section on pastoral directives.  One can find expressions such as “the honest regulation of birth,” “the proper regulation of birth” and “the right and lawful ordering of birth.” 

Having recourse to infertile periods is linked to there being “serious” or “well-grounded” reasons for “spacing births” or “controlling birth”.  I see no evidence that recourse to infertile periods is a spiritual discipline unto itself, that is, apart from this purpose of spacing births, though the good fruits which can come from the practice are extolled. 

Instead, what is apparent in HV is that the natural law itself provides its own answer to the spacing of births: “God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already spaced through the inherent operation of these laws.”

Patrick Dunn

#31, Dec 19, 2013 12:11pm

That stands in contrast, I believe, to the approach of discerning family size beyond those “well-grounded” or “serious” reasons.  The alternative is the decision to “prudently and generously…have more children”.  It’s also a further definition of that abandonment to God that I see as intrinsic to the marital vow.  HV goes on to say something that I think could well conflict with the NFP as a lifestyle approach: “They are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow.  The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out.”

His will…

Furthemore, HV says that “some people today raise the objection against this particular doctrine of the Church concerning the 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 to aims beneficial to man.”  It is significant that contraception is not the point of reference here.  That comes separately in the lines that follow.

Patrick Dunn

#32, Dec 19, 2013 12:11pm

After denouncing contraception, HV gives the conditions for spacing births as “well-grounded reasons…arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstance.”

Holding it all together, I see every reason to conclude that NFP is a conditional practice and not an ongoing spiritual exercise unto itself for married couples. 

Finally, the objection you raise with the questions about why the Church has not said more is a fallacy for a number of reasons, one of which is that there are many occurrences in the concrete life of Catholics which are not in keeping with what the Church has formally taught.  That the Church has not especially spoken out against such an occurrence does not mean it does not exist and is not problematic.  The many liturgical abuses and innovations in the liturgy after VII come to mind, as they were never intended by the reforms of the Council.

I think, in fact, that the Church has already said as much regarding child-bearing in her teachings thus far, as I have tried to show. 

Katie van Schaijik

#33, Dec 20, 2013 6:18am

I've read both Greg Popcak's article and Mark Shea's article. I find no indication whatsoever in either that they hold that NFP can be used for less than serious reasons.

The teaching of the Church is clear and easily summarized:

1) All married couples must be open to life; children are to be received as a gift.

2) Couples may not practice artificial birth control or sterilize themselves;

3) Couples may use NFP to space children and/or limit their family size, for a host of reasons, including health, financial, and psychological reasons, provided they do so prayerfully, with due moral seriousness, and with a sense of what they owe to God, to each other, and to society.

That's it.

Further, as I quoted above, HV explicitly endorses and praises NFP as a spiritual discipline. Faithful Catholic couples who practice NFP testify to its benefits as a spiritual discipline.

Even more, the consistent "voice" of the Church on this question has been one of encouragement, sympathy, kindness and generosity toward married couples.

The "voice" of providentialists is harsh, cold, condemnatory, resentful.

It's as if they resent the freedom we have been given in Christ. 

It's sad.

Patrick Dunn

#34, Dec 20, 2013 9:24am

Popcak writes:

"As I am fond of reminding people, NFP is not, in my view, primarily a means of spacing children. It is, in my view, primarily a spiritual exercise that allows couples to accomplish three ends: (1) to facilitate the communication and prayer life of the couple (2) to help the couple prayerfully discern their family size and, on an ongoing basis, continue to both balance and expand all the virtues associated with the unity and procreativity of marriage, and (3) help the couple achieve holiness, freedom, and true love through self-mastery and self-control."

In my reading, HV endorses and praises periodic continence as a spiritual discipline in the context of spacing births, not as a discipline unto itself apart from that primary purpose.  The discussion, say, of self-discipline and chastity are subordinated to the right and lawful ordering of births.  And that matter itself is set in the larger context of the fact that successive births are already spaced through the inherent operation of these laws - a statement which I could use more clarification on.

Perhaps Popcak is speaking in a different sense, not on the primary reason for NFP but as a summation of its benefits.

Katie van Schaijik

#35, Dec 20, 2013 9:54am

I don't find anything in HV against Greg's interpretation. 

On the contrary. He seems to me to interpret it faithfully.

He certainly doesn't suggest that it's okay for less than serious reasons. He is clearly advising that it NFP be approached with deep moral and religious seriousness.

The Church puts two limits on the use of NFP:

1) It has to be practiced in the context of marriage's essential ordination toward children. (So, it would be wrong to use it to make the marriage infertile.)

2) It should be practiced with prayer and due seriousness.

That's it. The rest is left up to the discernment, in love and freedom, of each individual couple. (This is the part that the providentialist seem especially to resent.)

Patrick Dunn

#36, Dec 20, 2013 10:40am

If NFP is okay to use only for serious reasons, then the natural question to ask is: what are the serious reasons?  And, apart from defining those reasons, the underlying and logically prior question is: reasons for what?

And the answer is: to practice periodic continence so as to space births.  The entire discussion of “reasons” is in reference to spacing births.  HV does not discuss recourse to periodic continence in the context of an isolated spiritual discipline, which is what I understand Popcak's point to be.

There is no dispute that the proper practice of NFP is spiritually demanding and likely spiritually fruitful. 

Katie van Schaijik

#37, Dec 20, 2013 11:10am

As Simca points out, that the Church doesn't list serious reasons for us is "a feature not a bug" of her teaching.  She leave it to to the discernment of each couple, under the grace of their sacrament. Each couple is to judge for themselves, and to refrain from judging others.

HV does mention several categories of potentially valid reasons, lest anyone claim "serious reasons" only refers to health issues or some such. She names physical, financial and psychological reasons, and even concerns about population growth. (!) 

The Bible clearly endorses perodic continence as a spiritual discipline. It's a long standing tradition in Cathoic culture and I have never heard of the Church frowning upon it. She only cautions that it should be temporary.

Many couples use NFP to achieve pregnancy. This, too, is well within the broad boundaries of Catholic teaching. It's another way of applying our intelligence to the procreative power of our union. 

I can't shake the feeling that you want to restrict the freedom Catholic couples have in marriage.  You want the limits to be spelled out and stricter than they are.  

But, remember, "It's for freedom that Christ has set us free."

Gregory Popcak

#38, Jan 4, 2014 5:51pm

I'll second everything Katie said in my defense, but HV isn't the only document with anything to say about what constitutes "serious reasons."   Here is Gaudium et Spes on the topic.

Parents should regard as their proper mission the task of transmitting human life and educating those to whom it has been transmitted. They should realize that they are thereby cooperators with the love of God the Creator, and are, so to speak, the interpreters of that love. Thus they will fulfil their task with human and Christian responsibility, and, with docile reverence toward God, will make decisions by common counsel and effort. Let them thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. For this accounting they need to reckon with both the material and the spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in life. Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself. The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God

Gregory Popcak

#39, Jan 4, 2014 5:52pm

Paul VI, himself, was quoted as saying that the "serious reasons" a couple may have for spacing children is, in fact, "very wide."   God Bless, G.

Patrick Dunn

#40, Jan 6, 2014 11:23am

Gregory Popcak,

As the points I raised regarding the context of spacing children from HV have not been refuted, I will not revisit them.  I will point out that, in my understanding, GS is a less important document than HV on the matter in question.  Further, the section you quote also continues with a call to trust in divine Providence, and to have a spirit of sacrifice, bearing in mind the duty and responsibility to be generous in procreation, even to having relatively large families.  While it does not speak as directly to the context of recourse to natural methods as HV does, GS seems to me, implicitly, to assume the same context as HV did.  And how could it not?

More generally, I think that, especially in an epoch in which the holy is so often vulgarized, to be concerned about the context in which NFP is promoted is necessary and wise.

Patrick Dunn

#41, Jan 6, 2014 11:39am

(The link above did not work and I was unable to edit the post, but this was the intended site:

Sign in to add a comment, or register first.

Forgot your password?