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Repost – My thoughts on NFP March 8, 2011

Posted by Tantumblogo in General Catholic, Society.

I posted the below over a year ago, back when this blog was new and sweet and innocent, like a springtime lamb.  The subject in question has come up in a side conversation I’m having via e-mail, so I thought I’d stir the pot and re-post it.  This was one of my more controversial posts during that timeframe.  Since I now have alot more readers (4 – twice as many as I used to!), I’m interested to see the reaction.

I made a comment recently regarding Dr. Pia de Solenni speaking at St. Gabriel parish in McKinney.   In it, I expressed my opinion that by extolling the virtues of NFP for very long term use, Dr. de Solenni may be misinterpreting the intention of the Church, and in particular, Humanae Vitae.  A commenter charitably pointed out that he disagreed, and that Humanae Vitae does indeed allow for long term use of NFP as a sort of contraception replacement.  I have looked into this issue in the past (that is how I came to my opinion), but I delved into it again, and received some input from other people, as well. 

In sum, I can’t agree with the commenter, or with those who agree with his interpretation.  Suffice it to say, this issue is very hotly debated within the Church, with some, like Christopher West, Dr. Janet Smith, and the Couple to Couple League, claiming that  a couple may use NFP to limit the number of children they have, even to a predetermined ‘acceptable’ number, so long as their motives are virtuous and not selfish.    Others, including myself but also including such luminaries as Fr. John Corapi and noted apologist John Salza, argue that NFP can only be used for very serious reasons and that it is not proper or licit to use NFP for years on end as a general birth control replacement. 

First of all, I think we need to look at the historical view the Church has held of any form of trying to control or limit the number of children a couple united in the sacrament of marriage may licitly engage in.  The two bedrock formulations of this theory were established in Arcanum Divinae Sapientiae by Pope Leo XIII and Casti Connubii by Pope Pius XI.  In Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI stated that “…no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good.  Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the beggetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural powers and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.”  Pope Pius XI goes on to quote St. Augustine thus: “Intercourse with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of offspring is prevented.’  Pope Pius XI concludes this subject by stating: “any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural powers to generate life is an offense against the Law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.”   In Genesis 38:8-10, the Lord killed Onan for deliberately engaging in intercourse in such a manner as to prevent impregnation. 

So, Pope Pius XI, speaking infallibly in a Papal encyclical,  makes it clear that anything that frustrates the marriage act in producing children is intrinsically evil.  Does periodically abstaining from sexual relations in order to not conceive mean that the act has been frustrated?  I think you could read into the above that the answer is in the affirmative, but it’s not completely clear.  However, speaking on this subject in an audience to a group of Roman midwives, Pope Pius XII gave an extensive analysis of the circumstances in which a couple may legitimately abstain from sexual relations in a periodic fashion in order to reduce the chance of conceiving.   Pius XII stated: “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 against the very nature of married life.”  Pius XII further states: “Serious motives….may exempt husband and wife from the obligatory, positive debt for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life. From this it follows that the observance of the natural sterile periods may be lawful, from the moral viewpoint.”   The serious motives Pius XII refers to include medical conditions, prevailing social conditions (a war, famine, etc), or the material condition of the family (extreme poverty, inability to provide for another child, etc.).  Pius XII also provided some examples of what are not sufficient reasons to avoid pregnancy.  These include the assertion of too high a prominence to sexual relations,  environmental concerns (overpopulation), and finally, the deliberate desire to have a small family.  Pius XII goes on to stress that large families are both a blessing and of great benefit to society as a whole.  He does not say that a couple can try to discern the number of children God intends them to have, as a means to try to justify the use of the agenesic periods.

With this background, we can look at Humanae Vitae.  Written as an encyclical by Pope Paul VI, it has the same infallibility as Casti Connubii.  The relevant paragraph is 10.4, which states: ” responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by 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.”   I think it important to state that, while the current translation on the Vatican website uses the term ‘serious reasons,’ a previous version from 1990 used the term ‘grave’ reasons.  So, the translation of the Latin does make a difference to its meaning.  Now, much of the language from Humanae Vitae was based on the talks given by Pope Pius XII on this subject, including the one I mentioned above.  While Pius XII’s talks do not have the infallibility of a papal encyclical, they do gain some of that authority by forming the basis for some of the precepts explained in Humanae Vitae.  In this light, Pope Paul’s statement that it is acceptable to use NFP for an indefinite period of time must correspond both with the doctrine of  Casti Connubii, which seems to imply that almost any measure taken to prevent pregnancy is always wrong, and Pius XII’s more clear explanations that the reasons for using NFP must be serious, even grave, and must not be based on any selfishness.  This includes a general desire to have a smaller family for general economic reasons.  Pius XII explains here that mere economic inconvenience is not sufficient reason to avoid having children – there must be a truly dire economic circumstance.  This applies to other reasons given to avoid pregnancy, as well, such as medical conditions. 

There is another aspect that needs to be looked at.  The Church has long identified two key components to the marriage sacrament – its procreative nature has always been seen as being the most important characteristic of marriage, followed by the personal union between man and wife.  Popes Pius XI and XII constantly reflect on this primacy of the procreative nature of marriage to establish the Church’s dogma in areas of contraception and marital relations.  Anything that tends to diminish the primacy of procreation within the marriage runs c0unter to the Will of God.  We must remember that the marital union mirrors the union of Christ with His Church at the heavenly banquet of the Lamb. As Jesus and His Church become one flesh through the Eucharist and the Eucharist brings life to the Church, a man and woman become one flesh and bring new life into the world.  Thus, only an extreme situation, a grave situation, can be used to justify intentionally avoiding the first duty of married couples, to bring new life into the world.  It is true that the 1983 Code of Canon Law does seem to, for the first time, equate the personal unitive nature of marriage with its procreative nature, but I have to wonder if that isn’t something that Pope Benedict would feel falls under the ‘hermeneutic of rupture.’  The Church has never taught that previously.  

Taken all together, the full breadth of Church doctrine on the sacrament marriage points to the conclusion I expressed in my comments about Dr. de Solenni, that using NFP to either intentionally limit the number of children for a very extended period of time (say, using NFP for a period of 20 years to produce 2 children decided upon by a couple), is not licit, and constitutes, according to Popes Pius XI and XII, a grave sin.  The issue is not entirely clear, because the Church has never defined the grave or serious reasons that one may use to justify using NFP very clearly, but I think the intent of the Church, the Will, is clear.   NFP can be used for certain periods of time if the reason is sufficiently grave, but not as a general means of limiting the number of children a couple may have.  Since the ‘grave’ or ‘serious’ reasons seem to be open to question, it would seem to be safer to err on the side of caution and use NFP in as limited a manner as possible.

There is one more aspect I’d like to discuss.   NFP advocates, including the commenter on this site, state that the Church teaches that couples who wish to use NFP for most of their married life to limit the number of children they have should discern God’s Will to arrive at this number of children.  I find this argument rather amazing.  I pray to discern God’s Will many times a day, and I cannot say I have ever been given so specific an indication of that Will as to be able to answer a question like “how many kids does God want me to have?”  I think the answer to that question is self-evident: God wants you to have as many as He sends you.  The world has constructed a monstrous artifice that states that families should be ‘planned,’ and that there is a certain ‘acceptable’ number of children.  Anyone with a large family can attest to this: they can tell you that they very frequently get assailed for rejecting the wisdom of the world and having a larger than acceptable number of children.  This  conventional wisdom is an enormous pressure exerted on a couple.  In addition, there are so many worldly reasons NOT to have a large number of children; wouldn’t it be nicer to make sure we don’t have any more so we can afford that trip to Europe?  Isn’t it very hard to raise a large number of children, and wouldn’t it be easier to do what the neighbors do?  How can couples insure their discernment isn’t selfish preference masquerading as the Will of God?  We are all very prey to such tempting confusion, and that confusion and our inherently fallen nature would seem to make such precise discernment difficult to reliably obtain. 

This wordly thinking has been taken to such an extreme, that many nominally Catholic countries now face problems of such low birth rates that their populations are in danger of collapse.  This is driven by the ‘contraceptive mentality,’ a mentality that affects the thinking of the vast majority of married couples today, Catholic and otherwise.  This mentality is steeped in the Malthusian rhetoric of limited resources and the need, indeed the right, of married couples to take from God that Will that is His and determine how many children they should have.  NFP used for long periods of time treads on ground that is rather close to the contraceptive mentality.  While NFP in its most innocent incarnation should leave the couple always open to life, I have known many couples who used NFP while they were still wanting to conceive children, only to switch to chemical contraceptives or sterilization once they’ve ‘had enough’.  So, NFP if not used properly can be seen to be part of the contraceptive mentality, and it would take great efforts at formation to insure NFP is used in a way that is always compatible with Church doctrine.  This concern doesn’t argue against NFP in toto, but I think it speaks to the fact that NFP is best used as sparingly as possible.

 Sorry if what I am saying is hard, or uncharitable, I do not intend it to be, and I want to be clear that I am judging no one. But, it has been the consistent teaching of the Church for 2000 years that every act of sexual intimacy between husband and wife must be open to the transmission of life, unless there is a very grave reason why this can not be so.   Long term use of NFP does not fit within this tradition as I have been able to research and understand it.  I hope, at least, I have established that I didn’t arrive at my viewpoint rashly or without due consideration.

I would ask supporters of NFP the following hypothetical: do you support the right of a  married couple to use NFP not just to limit the  number of children they have to a certain predetermined number, but to, after a period of discernment, have no children whatsoever?  If NFP is alright to limit the number of children to 1 or 2 or 3, is it alright to use that method to limit the number of children to zero?


1. Andy - February 17, 2010

I’ll make one more comment, and then we can agree to disagree. My post was directly in accordance with Catholic Church teaching–yours, however well thought out, is not when you add your particular nuances and ideas. It expresses your opinion when you make up terms such as “sufficiently grave.” I find it equally amazing that you scour through older documents when an understanding of NFP was in its infancy, yet seem to scoff at anything more recent, including canon law. Nothing in your post from John Paul.

When you make a statement such as, “…that using NFP to either intentionally limit the number of children for a very extended period of time (say, using NFP for a period of 20 years to produce 2 children decided upon by a couple), is not licit…”, perhaps you can explain how that is not judging. I will restate my prevous post–not even the Church can adequately determine what is the appropriate number of children for a particular couple.

“NFP must be serious, even grave, and must not be based on any selfishness…” Here I agree with your statement (except for use of the term “grave.”) But your error lies in taking general statements like this, and those made by someone like Fr Corapi, and applying it to a particular couple. That is, in fact judging.

Again, not even the Church decides what the right number of children is for a particular couple–that’s all I’m saying. While we may believe that some couples, in the contracepting society we live in, may not have serious reasons, it’s not for us to decide.

Father of 9

2. tantamergo - February 17, 2010

I didn’t include John Paul II’s audiences which constitute ‘Theology of the Body’ because they do not constitute infallible teaching. Audiences can express the thinking of a Pope on a given issue, but they don’t have the weight of an infallible dogma like an encyclical does. I did use Pope Pius XII’s audiences on the subject because those audiences were used by Paul VI to help inform Humanae Vitae.

With regard to what the current Church doctrine is, it varies much depending on who you talk to. I was trying to make clear that there is a variance of opinion, but I was presenting one particular view. I chose to highlight this view due to the “bright line theory.” Bright line theory means that in cases of the law or moral judgement, it’s important to have a clear rule that will insure that one doesn’t do something illicit. To my mind, the idea that couples can discern how many children to have fails the bright line test; they could well think they’re ok morally, but due to some fault in their reasoning they’re actually doing something illicit. Limiting NFP usage to serious situations meets the bright line criteria better. As I said in the post, and please remember, this is a BLOG post and not a doctoral dissertation, there are many reasons a couple could think they’re using NFP for selfless reasons, but they’ve unintentionally internalized the contraceptive mentality and their reasoning may be faulty. I’ve spoken with some well known Catholic apologists and moral theologians on this issue, and read the works of others. Most of the people I spoke with tend to take more of the view that I expressed, that in the totality of the doctrine of the Church, NFP is something that needs very serious justification. They did not feel that using NFP was something that could be used to lead to a certain number of children. I did not speak with any of the ToB proponents like Smith and West, but their positions are very clear and don’t need additional explanation.

I disagree that I am judging, and we need to be careful here. Catholics do have the right to look at situations and make a determination based on their sensus fidelium whether that is in accord with the doctrine of the Church. Everyone’s situation is different, and while I threw out some hypotheticals, that’s far from saying anyone in particular is doing something illicit. The judging we are specifically called to avoid is the Pharasiacal judgement of peoples souls, or to claim that “God did this [bad] thing to you because you’re a sinner.” Catholics must use their sensus fidelium to judge situations, otherwise we’d have no ability to examine our consciences or what to believe in our Faith.

I think there’s one more factor at play. I don’t think it unreasonable to say that many, if not most, Catholics are not very well formed in the Faith. Yet, using NFP properly requires a substantial degree of formation, especially in the case where couples are to discern the number of children they feel called to have. That is why I reference the bright line rule above – is the best interpretation of NFP one that leaves as much of the decision on its use to the couple, or is the Will of the Church better accomplished by a more limited definition of acceptable use of NFP with a more clear establishment of its acceptable use? Another way to put this is, is a situation where the Church sets more narrow, but more clearly defined, usage guidelines for NFP easier to follow and more likely to be understood and used properly, to give the greatest insurance for the state of the souls of NFP users? Isn’t that a more moral position for the Church to take?

You have been greatly blessed by God, and I am sincerely sorry if I offend with my different opinion regarding NFP. Perhaps we disagree on many subjects. Large families are very beautiful, but it took me some time and a good deal of self-inflicted suffering to come to this viewpoint. I come from a small, truly white, anglo-saxon protestant family, where a discussion like this would have been crazy talk. But God saw fit that I should marry a wonderful Catholic woman from a truly reverent, God-loving family, and that has made all the difference. My wife comes from a family with 9 kids, and my father in law has 61 grandchildren and 3 great grand children. It’s a wonderful thing. So I hope my different opinion does not lead to dislike, I think that would be most unfortunate.

Mary - March 8, 2011

Actually, she comes from a family of 11 children, 2 of whom God called to heaven early.

tantamergo - March 8, 2011

Shame on me.

3. Steve B - February 17, 2010


Exceptionally well thought out post & comments! And, the photo of your children is incredibly precious too!!!

I hope that the answer by a truly faithful Catholic to your hypothetical question is: “Only in exceptionally rare and extremely serious/dire circumstances.”

The question which I’d fathom DOESN’T get asked nearly enough in discerning God’s Will wrt family size is this: “What would be an greater act of love and dying to self – being completely open to having more children, or actively acting in a way which is against having any more children?”

The gift of human life is such an amazing thing which nearly all of us take far too much for granted.

I honestly think that the Church, through the Divine Wisdom inherent in Her teachings, is gently nudging us to embrace that “human life is an incredible gift” mentality, so that we may be more completely open to the very real possibility that bringing “too many” children into the world may actually do it (and our family as well) an INCREDIBLE amount of unforseen good….

God bless us all !!!

tantamergo - February 17, 2010

Thanks, Steve. I appreciate it!

4. Great video on the myth of overpopulation! « A Blog for Dallas Area Catholics - February 17, 2010

[…] February 17, 2010 Posted by tantamergo in General Catholic, Society. trackback To go with my recent posts on NFP, here’s a great video from the Population Research Institute on birthrates and […]

5. Steve B - February 17, 2010


Here’s a quote from JP II that I found on this topic:

Right conscience is true interpreter

3. The use of the infertile periods for conjugal union can be an abuse if the couple, for unworthy reasons, seeks in this way to avoid having children, thus lowering the number of births in their family below the morally correct level. This morally correct level must be established by taking into account not only the good of one’s own family, and even the state of health and the means of the couple themselves, but also the good of the society to which they belong, of the Church, and even of all mankind.

The Encyclical Humanae Vitae presents responsible parenthood as an expression of a high ethical value. In no way is it exclusively directed to limiting, much less excluding, children. It means also the willingness to accept a larger family. Above all, according to Humanae Vitae, responsible parenthood implies “a deeper relationship with the objective moral order instituted by God—the order of which a right conscience is the true interpreter” (HV 10).
~ Wednesday audience, John Paul II, 5 September 1984

Now, JP II didn’t get explicit in what he meant by “unworthy reasons”.

However, I think any reasonable person would infer that he’s more on tantamergo’s side of the issue wrt NFP, especially when you read the 2nd paragraph above….

Andy - February 17, 2010

Sorry, guess I couldn’t help myself one more time 🙂 There’s no “side” to consider. The reason JPII didn’t get explicit, is because he cannot, and would not. The reasons from HV or the CCC are “just,” “serious,” or “well-grounded.” And the church does not determine what those reasons are for a particular couple. That’s just the way it is. So when you start talking about a “reasonable person” and “inferring”, and adding your own language like “only in exceptionally rare and extremely serious/dire circumstances” you’re adding language and an interpretation that does not exist in the most current Church documents on the subject.

tantamergo - February 17, 2010

It took me a while to note your e-mail address. ccli.org – Couple to Couple League International, which advocates for NFP.

Your comments are duly noted.

tantamergo - February 17, 2010

And not just a ccli.org domain, you’re the executive director!

Ooops, former executive director? Although, you’re still listed as such on the CCL website.

Okey dokey!

6. TravelerWithChrist - February 17, 2010

I have a large family according to today’s standards, and what makes me so sad (and frustrated) is when I get the question of “are you done yet” or “is this your last” after mass, from other Catholics. My neighbor Catholic (with children in Catholic school) told me once that I have “too many kids”. In fact, more comments come from Catholics than non-Catholics.

Which is judgement and which is faith-based instruction?

I think Tantamergo is right in stating that many Catholics are NOT well formed in their faith.

This mindset that many Catholics have that I should LIMIT the number of children I have is baffling. I am limiting the number of children – to the number God is willing to give me. I can only accept the number of children He gives me just as I (not always so graciously) accept the crosses He gives me.

Thank you Tantamergo for your bold and very informative blog post.

7. Andy - February 18, 2010


Former executive director (we need to update our website). Doesn’t make me any smarter than anyone else though, just means I care about NFP.

You do have a very good and thoughtful website. I think the funny thing is that overall we, what I like to call, “violently agree!” 🙂 I was really just nitpicking at the margins a bit.

God bless!

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