Dear Spouses: What if Natural Family Planning Didn’t Exist?

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There’s been a lot of blog-splaining lately about just how difficult Natural Family Planning can be, particularly for those facing economic challenges. I thought I’d be Captain Obvious and point out something.

Natural Family Planning (NFP) has been around only for mere decades. If you group NFP alongside its predecessor “calendar rhythm,” you get closer to the century mark, but not by much.

For a humongous chunk of the history of marriage, Natural Family Planning simply did not exist. And yet, newly minted spouses in every age have always been called to exercise “responsible parenthood.”

I suppose one point I want to make is that, while the Catholic blogosphere is positing just how hard life can be with NFP, I’d like to ask contemporary couples to imagine just how hard life might be without NFP. Natural Family Planning is one moral way to realize responsible parenthood, but for most Catholic married couples in human history, their call to responsible parenthood came without any reference whatsoever to periodic abstinence (and obviously without any reference to immoral contraception).

Mind you, this is not an anti-NFP post, by any means. But it is a call for Catholic couples to reconsider whether their esteem for making babies–and raising them—is fully matching the Church’s understanding of the great and unsurpassed blessing of children that is found both in Scripture and in Her teaching on marriage and family.  Here are some things to consider:

1. The Church still teaches that the procreation and education of children is the primary end of marriage. No surprise here, right? Oh, there is surprise? That’s possible—because so many post-Vatican II folks seem to think that this was “changed” by the Council’s documents. Nope. The precise natural-law language of “ends” still applies here. The “primary end” of marriage is about the kids—about giving them life and giving them faith that leads to eternal life. The “secondary end” is about the couple—the good of the spouses and helping each other get to heaven.

2. The Church teaches that children really are the “supreme gift” of marriage. There is no greater blessing that God can bestow on a marriage than the fruitful gift of new life. Husband and wife, made in the image and likeness of our Trinitarian God, become co-creators with God in generating a third—their child.

3. The Church’s Rite of Marriage includes the couple’s covenantal promise to “accept children lovingly from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and His Church.” Openness to children—in all circumstances, including “unexpected” new life—is what we’re saying yes to in marriage. It’s our God-witnessed promise to lovingly welcome every supreme gift of marriage given to us by God.

4. Marriage is all about making families. In the Church’s teaching documents on marriage and family, care is taken to make clear that families arise from marriage—and nowhere else. St. John Paul II  says that “the acceptance and education of children” are “two of the primary ends of the family” (Letter to Families, #10). Marriage and family have this primary end in common.

5. Before NFP, married couples faced the same kinds of important decisions regarding responsible parenthood. Yes, NFP can be hard, but perhaps contemporary couples can count their blessings that it’s available. Maybe we should also re-imagine how we moderns would discern “responsible parenthood” if we’d lived in an age without NFP….

6. The Church does not impose any obligation on Catholic spouses to practice NFP. NFP is available. Thanks be to God. But it’s not obligatory. There are couples today who can make morally sound decisions about “responsible parenthood” without recourse to NFP.

7. Couples with good reasons to use NFP may use it. Similarly, there are couples today who can make morally sound decisions about “responsible parenthood” by using NFP. God and the couple—not anyone else—get to discern this.

8. NFP is a helpful resource for those couples who must sacrifice the blessing of another child for sake of their existing family. Based on Church teaching, it would seem the only proper lens to view the use of NFP, however, is through the lens of sacrifice. A couple is making an often-painful sacrifice—not of sex! but of the possibility of another supreme gift!—by prudently saying “not now” to that supreme gift.

9. NFP can be life-giving and works both ways. NFP, however, can in itself be a huge blessing to couples who use it to achieve pregnancy rather than avoid it. NFP can be the joyful pathway toward receiving the supreme gift of marriage.

10. Children are, by God’s plan, the only everlasting sign—and reality—of a couple’s marriage. The bottom line is that responsible parenthood needs to reckon with the incredible reality that, in God’s plan for marriage and family, there is no marrying and giving in marriage in Heaven—but there is exactly one “fruit” of marriage that makes Heaven what it really is. Our children. Marriage itself is an earthly reality that passes away. Our kids remain.

So, yes, let’s thank God for the blessing of life with NFP, though it may be tough. But I pray that couples will reflect more deeply on whether God just might be encouraging  you to say “yes” rather than “not now” to another supreme gift of marriage. If so, be assured that your “yes” is something God will honor—He will not be outdone in generosity!

 

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

Deacon Jim Russell is a lifelong St. Louis resident, "cradle" Catholic, husband, father of eleven, and grandfather of two. Ordained to the Diaconate in 2002, Deacon Russell serves as Family Life Coordinator for the Office of Laity and Family Life in the Archdiocese of Saint Louis, Missouri. He previously worked in full-time parish ministry for the last fourteen years. He remains an active supporter of Catholic radio and the Catholic blogosphere (some of his posts can be found at the “Virtual Vestibule,” the official blog of the Archdiocese of St. Louis (http://blog.stlouisreview.com/). Deacon Russell’s theological interests include the sanctity of marriage, the work of Pope St. John Paul II, and Catholic teaching on same-sex attraction. Follow Deacon Russell on Twitter at @MarriageSTL.

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