Natural Family Planning, Providence, and the Goal of Marriage

The great NFP debate would be greatly helped by some serious reflections on ends: teleology, as the philosophers like to say.

On one side stand the Providentialists.  At their more strident, they accuse NFP users of a “contraceptive mentality.”  Just because periodic abstinence (the means) is legitimate doesn’t mean that its every use is appropriate.  Some NFP users, say the Providentialists, seem to have pretty secular attitudes about family size.

In any case, even when not in a polemical mood, Providentialists believe that God will always provide for new life.  Trust in him and don’t worry about how many babies you might have!

On the other side are the NFP fans.  At their more strident, they accuse the Providentialists of being irresponsible, thoughtless about the needs of their children and the broader health of the family.  Yes, of course children are good: but there are limits.  Paul VI and John Paul II, they note, were rather vigorous in their insistence on “responsible parenthood”—not indiscriminate baby factories.

 

In any case, NFP fans see periodic abstinence as a good in itself, an exercise in self-control and a confirmation that marriage is not ruled by lust.  Moreover, they see so many, and such complicated, reasons that having another baby may not be appropriate at a given moment.  At the very least, they think it unwise to judge when you don’t know all the details of why a family is choosing—or not choosing—not to procreate.

Although there are plenty of good arguments in the above paragraphs, note that there is precious little appeal to ends.  What are these things for?  “Ends” can refer to a person’s purposes, the goals they are seeking.  But even more, “end” means the purposes inscribed in the very nature of things, where they naturally tend—or “end up”—even apart from human purposes.  Ends reveal what God has inscribed in the very nature of things, a central part of his Providence.  Traditional natural law theories look for rules of conduct precisely in the natural tendencies of the things God has made.

Consider sex itself.  Whatever purposes we may bring to it, the natural tendency of sexual intercourse is the fertilization of the female ovum that results in new human life.

Of course, the process doesn’t end there.  The end of conception is birth: that’s where it goes, and where its Creator meant it to go.  And the end of a baby is a healthy adult.  This is actually Thomas Aquinas’s primary argument for why sex ought to be within marriage.  If you’re going to be conceiving babies, you ought to do it in a context where babies have a chance of growing into healthy adults.  That context is the family, based on a healthy marriage.

Thus, to push further, the end of marriage—where a healthy man-woman relationship including sex naturally ends up—is healthy adults.  That’s what marriage is for, the difference between this friendship and every other friendship.  Sure, it is a special kind of friendship in itself, and that friendship is a good.  But its end is well-adjusted grown children.  In fact, marriage and its end are so inherently connected that you really can’t get well-adjusted adults without a truly healthy marriage between their parents.  (As those of who came from families without such marriages can attest.)

In fact, even long after they have left the house, the social wellbeing of adult children is radically undermined by the breakdown of their parents’ marriage.

This kind of thinking about ends can do a lot to clean up our thinking about natural family planning.  On the one hand, the end of marriage is children.  A marriage really cannot have too many children.  To the extent that childbearing is prevented, even by morally licit means, the marriage is deprived of the good for which it primarily exists.

On the other hand, the end of marriage is children who grow into healthy adults.  In fact, that’s why sex is reserved to marriage in the first place.  Notice a funny parallel.  The first kind of natural family planning is not periodic abstinence within marriage, but total abstinence outside of marriage.  The reason we abstain from sex outside of marriage is because children should not be conceived outside of a context where they can grow up to be healthy adults.  That’s the most fundamental kind of NFP.

But this argument applies within marriage, too.  For the same reason that we don’t have sex outside of marriage, we should be careful about conceiving children in marriage if we are unable to give them a healthy upbringing.

The Church lists various reasons we might determine that we are not now able to bring a child into the world.  But the best approach to this question is, again, through teleology.  What is the end of a child?  First, children need basic physical health.  If we are unable to feed them, we should not be giving birth to them.  That, of course, is a pretty low standard.

But children also need social health: that’s the deeper part of growing into a healthy adult.  Now, one of the most important contributors to that social health is siblings.  Big family is good for kids.  But another key to the social well-being of children is the parental relationship.  Spousal abuse, for example, is pretty hard on kids, and would be a good argument against having a child.  But so too might be serious depression, or other forms of social and psychological unhealth in the family.  So too might be problems in the neighborhood.

That doesn’t make the NFP decision especially easy.  But at least it helps to lay out the principles.  Big family is good, both for marriages and for children, because it contributes to their ends.  But anything that thwart the ends of children is a reason a couple might want to put off having a child.

A “teleology,” or serious consideration of ends, can also be helpful for thinking about periodic abstinence itself.  Self-control is a good, and worth practice—though we should acknowledge that a couple can practice “periodic abstinence” for non-NFP reasons.  Old traditions of liturgical abstinence—say, during the two weeks of Passiontide—are another way a couple can practice sexual self-control.

But self-control is not an end in itself.  In fact, the marital embrace is a greater good than sexual self-control.  The end of sexual self-control is to be able to express love, not lust, through our sexuality.  Sexual affection, meanwhile, is a good precisely because its end is to promote general affection between the couple; and the end of this is to help the couple be better parents.  The good of children, then, suggests that a couple should practice abstinence only to the extent that it helps them draw closer to one another, and that they also use sexual congress as a way to draw closer together.  This is the end of these things: they are good for a reason.

Putting off children is never a good in itself.  Children are the good of marriage.  Sometimes the virtues of periodic abstinence are sung so loudly that we miss that it is a sad thing.  A couple may legitimately abstain from sex because the good of their family currently demands it.  But the sexual disappointment that attends this decisions is a helpful reminder that marriage wasn’t made for abstinence any more than it was made for sterility.  Marriage was made for couples to come together and raise a family.

Thinking about the ends of things helps to resolve the debate between Providentialism and NFP.  Marriage isn’t meant to be an indiscriminate “baby factory”: that’s why sex outside of marriage is prohibited in the first place.  But neither is it meant for sterility and long-term abstinence.  Married couples are meant to come together lovingly to raise healthy, holy adults, and as many of them as we are genuinely able to.  To raise children requires us to use our minds.  In this way, God calls us to participate in his providence.

Finally, we are all, parents and children, meant for holiness.  That means laying down our lives, for our parents, for our spouses, for our Church.  It means, too, taking time for prayer and always seeking how we can better serve our heavenly Father.  When Vatican II reminded us of the “universal call to holiness,” that’s what it meant.

Editor’s note: The image above entitled “The Five Eldest Children of Charles I” was painted by Anthony van Dyck in 1637.

Eric Johnston

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Eric Johnston is a father of five who teaches theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University. His principal work is on Thomas Aquinas's theology of marriage, as well as related topics in social thought and the theology of nature and grace. He blogs on spiritual theology at professorjohnston.com.

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