When I entered the Church early in 1978 there was little enough discussion of natural family planning or of the Church’s teaching that use of contraceptives violated the law of God. The Couple to Couple League had been founded just a few years earlier, and NFP was not a subject even written about much in the Catholic press, but when it did get noticed by orthodox journalists or writers, it received favorable attention. But perhaps it is fair to say that it was seen at the time by most Catholics who had even heard of it as something a bit on the extreme side. Use of NFP was definitely associated with being in the orthodox “wing” of the Church, perhaps even a bit hyper-orthodox, for the vast shift among Catholic couples to contraceptive use which took place in the early and mid-1960s was long over.
Now one of the, to me, most curious things that has arisen in the Catholic Church in the United States since, roughly I guess the early 1990s, has been a vocal, albeit probably not very large, anti-NFP movement. Not surprisingly the Internet has facilitated this and perhaps allowed it to appear larger and more important than it really is. This anti-NFP group consists not of the modernist, pro-contraceptive Catholics, who have never been supporters of natural family planning, but of those who claim the mantle of orthodoxy in their opposition to a method of child spacing sanctioned by popes since Pius XI. I know that my claim that NFP has papal sanction will be hotly disputed by some critics. Rather than repeat what I have written elsewhere, I invite readers to consult my 2006 article in Homiletic & Pastoral Review that provides appropriate quotations from papal teaching. In this present article I want to discuss not the morality of NFP but the phenomenon of the opposition to it.
Most of this opposition to NFP appears to come from those who call themselves traditionalists, and are generally identified by their adherence to the 1962 Roman Missal, the traditional Latin Mass. I am myself an adherent of that liturgy, and moreover it is certainly the case that many of the questions and concerns which the traditionalist movement raises about the direction of the Church and the state of theology since the Council are perfectly valid. But on NFP they are just wrong. The scientific and medical aspects of natural family planning were beginning to be understood around 1930, and the only papal reference by Pius XI was favorable though not very specific. His successor, Pius XII, however, treated the subject more than once and at some length, and if anyone will read and understand the quotations provided in my 2006 article, he will be able to see that his attitude was favorable also. So it is puzzling to me why those who claim to adhere to Catholic praxis as it was before the Council would want to dissent on that particular point.
Whether or not all the critics of NFP can be labeled as traditionalists is not clear, but even less clear to me are their motivations. The arguments they employ are excellent examples of the kind of private judgment indulged in by Protestants, in that they take as their starting point something perfectly valid which they then proceed to twist or else they pick some dubious starting point which leads only to dubious conclusions. For example, they might stress our dependence upon the providence of God, as if that dependence were somehow at odds with the exercise of the virtue of prudence in spacing children or determining family size. These same critics would hardly, I suppose, fail to strap their children into seat belts or car seats on the specious plea that if God wants them to survive an accident surely he will watch out for them. Or they will draw some principle out of thin air, such as the notion that procreation is the only licit reason for performing the marriage act, apparently oblivious of the fact that theology for centuries has recognized in addition various perfectly legitimate subsidiary reasons, summarized by Pius XI in Casti Conubii #59 as “mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence.”
In some cases, although they will admit the licitness of NFP in the abstract, they will restrict its use to extremely narrow circumstances. Although large families are certainly characteristic of Catholics, and popes have praised large families, there are no magisterial documents mandating large families or restricting NFP use to narrow circumstances. Sometimes it is claimed that one must have a serious reason to make use of periodic continence, but this is simply an error based on an English translation from an early Italian draft of Humanae Vitae. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2368) rightly speaks of “just reasons,” which is a correct translation of the authoritative Latin of Humanae Vitae, #16. (For a discussion of this unfortunate mistranslation of Humanae Vitae, see Angela Bonilla, “Humanae Vitae: Grave Motives to Use a Good Translation,” which originally appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, May 2007.) These critics sometimes misuse Pius XII’s words in his famous Address to Midwives in which his mention of serious motives refers to those who intend to avoid having children “for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life.” And they ignore subsequent statements by Pius XII, such as his address about a month later to the Association of Large Families in which, referring to his previous address, he states that in it “We affirmed the legitimacy and at the same time the limits—truly very wide—of that controlling of births which, unlike the so-called ‘birth control,’ is compatible with God’s law.” Nor is this even to mention the many statements in support of natural family planning by John Paul II, such as his very positive treatment of it in Familiaris Consortio, #32.
The teaching of the Church is that “it is necessary that each and every marriage act remain ordered per se to the procreation of human life” (Humanae Vitae #11, and quoted in CCC 2366). NFP users, as is evident, do not violate this norm of morality. But most fertile Catholic married couples do violate it, and it is an entirely reasonable cause of concern that so many of our coreligionists do not adhere to the moral law in such a serious matter. But the critics of NFP, instead of addressing this widespread violation of the natural law, go after that tiny minority who do seek, usually at considerable sacrifice, to abide by the law of God by use of a method approved over and over again by the supreme pontiffs. If these critics of NFP were truly interested in raising the level of morality in the Church one would think that they would become the most zealous of NFP teachers and promoters, instead of taking aim at that small group of their fellow Catholics who use NFP in order to avoid sin in their marriage.
No doubt someone will point out to me that NFP can be misused. Truly so, just as any other legitimate human activity can. But how often is it in fact misused? NFP users tend to have larger families than the American Catholic norm, even if they do not have families of the size that the critics of NFP think they should have.
There is no mandate that couples must use NFP, and I am not criticizing those couples who do not choose to use it. Husbands and wives are free in this matter, and those who use NFP, and those who, without resorting to illicit means, do not use it, have no cause to judge each other or regard each other as enemies. Instead they might hope that someday all Catholic couples will avoid the serious sin of deliberately separating the unitive and the procreative aspects of the marriage act.
The world will always offer obstacles and temptations to living a Christian life. There are many pointed examples of this in the United States and elsewhere today. We Catholics have more than enough to do simply to preserve the Faith and prevent our coreligionists from abandoning the Church. There is no reason to waste our time and energy in criticizing those Catholics who have chosen a different approach, but an approach entirely legitimate and consistent with God’s law. Instead let us work together to address the real weaknesses and sources of scandal in the Church, the loss of Catholic identity, the ignorance of doctrine and the slipshod observance of Catholic moral teaching. If we do these things we can be confident that we are contributing to building up the household of the Faith instead of creating discord within the too small ranks of orthodox Catholics.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Eltz Family” painted by Fedinand Georg Waldmüller in 1835.