Last week, I started talking about the real changes that need to be made in how we talk about NFP. Let’s keep that going and tackle my next least favorite thing about the NFP subculture: The NFP Police. You’ll encounter them in online forums, in marriage prep, in books, and even on a bad day, in your own living room.
“Why don’t they have a baby yet?”
“You don’t have a grave reason to use NFP!”
And my least favorite:
“They have a contraceptive mentality.”
Being told that the reasons you stressed, cried, and prayed over are bad is possibly the most demoralizing thing to hear when you’re trying to use NFP as a faithful Catholic. It is dismissive and reductionist, it is mean and thoughtless, and it is downright hurtful. While, yes, it is absolutely possible that people may use NFP for what are ultimately selfish reasons, nobody makes the decision to sacrifice their deepest physical desires lightly or thoughtlessly.
If you have time to kill, start with this piece from Kevin Miller, P.h.D from the Linacre Quarterly. Scholarly journals not your thing? That’s okay, I took one for the team, and I’ll sum up.
First off, he tackles the perennial “grave” reasons vs. “just” reasons debate. The debate comes from a few papal texts, but most often from Pius XII’s Allocution to Midwives. In Italian, he uses the phrase, “gravi motivi”, which has historically been translated to the English cognate “grave” reasons to use NFP. Dr. Miller points out though, that later in that same text, “seri motivi”, translated to “serious motives”, and in other works, he references the “very wide limits” to using NFP.
The other source of this confusion is the great Humane Vitae itself. Translations have gone back and forth on whether to use the word “grave” or “serious”, but currently, the translation presented by the Vatican uses the word “serious” for motives regarding NFP. Personally, I think that’s a good translation, but I’m not a Latin (or Italian) linguist, so I’ll defer to those who are.
Now at this point, you might be thinking, “its just two words, pick one and go!”, and when you add Pius XII’s “very wide limits”, I think there’s something to that. Erring on the side of caution, the NFP police will tend to say that you can use NFP for one of three reasons: physical/psychological conditions, economic conditions, or social conditions. All in all, I actually don’t disagree with that. And as long as we are framing that in the context of “very wide limits”, perhaps the “grave vs. serious” doesn’t really matter anyway.
Simcha Fischer put it best in her Sinner’s Guide to NFP, I think. What might be a serious physical condition to one person might seem trivial to another. What constitutes dire financial straits for one family might be abundance for another. What is psychologically overwhelming to one mother might be a lazy day for another mom. This is the exact reason that the Church doesn’t just “make a list” and it’s the exact reason you and I have zero business and zero right to judge anyone’s family size.
That being said, we do have an obligation to be mindful of how we are using NFP because while it isn’t possible to use it contraceptively, it is possible to use it selfishly. While the person who uses NFP for trivial reasons cannot be guilty of the blasphemy of perverting the sacredness of sex, they can absolutely incur the guilt that is due to a selfish and hardened heart. There is a real danger of assuming that since we aren’t placing any physical or medical barriers to new life, that we are automatically working in accord with God’s Will. If you are using NFP in a selfish manner, it can not bring you closer as a couple, and will not strengthen your marriage, it’s only going to cause a lot of hurt in your marriage.
Admittedly, sometimes it can be a fine line to walk before you cross over into selfishness. That’s why the Church encourages couples to prayerfully analyze each and every month whether to abstain during periods of fertility or not. Some months, that will be a brutally simple task, but some months will need a little Divine help for proper discernment. We can’t just assume that since we’re using NFP, we have carte blanche to design our family according to our whims.
But again, that decision is between you, your spouse, and God, and anyone else can keep their nose out of it. You might want to involve a spiritual director; that can be a very good thing! At the end of the day, it is impossible for anyone else to know all of your circumstances, so while they can give advice, they cannot pass judgment.
Growing up, I was surrounded by big families. I myself am number seven out of ten. I love having so many siblings, and I do feel that God blessed my parents for their generosity. That being said, I don’t believe that God calls everyone to have the maximum amount of children they can biologically have. When we read the Bible, children are always referred to as a blessing and a sign of God’s favor, but with one notable exception:
Do not desire a multitude of useless children, nor rejoice in ungodly sons. If they multiply, do not rejoice in them, unless the fear of the Lord is in them. Do not trust in their survival, and do not rely on their multitude; for one is better than a thousand, and to die childless is better than to have ungodly children. (Sirach 16:1-3)
Well, well, well, Quiverfull folks, would’ja lookit that. Oh, wait, Sirach only shows up in Catholic Bibles… Ah well.
As Catholics, we are called to reproductive generosity, but also to prudence and to responsibile parenthood (Humanae Vitae, 10). Only you and your spouse know exactly what that means for your family. The NFP Police need to stay out of it.
Check out the previous posts in the “NFP in the Trenches” series, and stay tuned for more stories and more to come!