The Catholic position on family planning is sometimes caricatured as if the Church intends the faithful not to discern their family size responsibly, but rather to have as many children as their fertility will allow, what Pope John Paul II referred to in 1994 as “an ideology of fertility at all costs.” This is silly and anyone who believes it has not made a serious effort to find out the truth. Catholic teaching has repeated the legitimacy of deliberate recourse to natural fertility cycles for spacing births so many times in the past 150 years that it has almost become a cliché. Nevertheless, some people continue to doubt that NPF is fully upright.
I have addressed this several times over the years, because I think it is important for couples to get it right. If they procreate irresponsibly, they can hurt each other, their other small children, and the witness of the Church.
If couples are to get it right, then pastoral leaders serving in family ministries, especially priests and pastors, have to root out the niggling doubt that down deep something is really suspect about NFP. Pope Paul VI dispelled the doubt in this way: “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” (Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, no. 10).
He could have said it even more strongly: couples who have serious reasons to avoid having more children are just as generous toward the good of procreation when they abstain as are couples who, having no serious reasons, seek to get pregnant. It’s not ‘second best.’
In this essay, I offer some pastoral reflections for those who work with couples in family ministries. These reflections may also be of some benefit to Christian couples themselves as well as to those who are considering getting married.
Jesus’ Will Is Preeminent
The first and most important principle for Christian family planning is Jesus’ Will. John Paul II in 1994 taught: “Truly, in begetting life the spouses fulfill one of the highest dimensions of their calling: they are God’s co-workers.” It may seem obvious, but in order to formally cooperate with God in bringing forth new life, couples need to know His Will.
This means that pastoral discussions about family planning need to be deliberately situated into the context of the discernment of the Will of God. There is perhaps no issue more weighty and central to the personal vocation of a Christian couple than the timing and number of children they should seek to bring into the world. “Precisely for this reason,” the pope says, “they must have an extremely responsible attitude.”
The process of discernment about whether or not to pursue children (or more children) is not some overly pious exercise of sitting in a chapel with one’s eyes shut and waiting on an answer from above. It is, among other things, a flat-footed assessment, based upon the concrete experience of the couple, of whether or not they can care well for the duties they already have and bring into existence another weighty duty. If they believe that they can, then, given the nature of marriage as a two-in-one flesh, unitive and procreative union, they should concretely welcome the realization of the procreative good of their marriage.
If they have reasonable doubt that they can, then those reasons may justify avoiding pregnancy. Paul VI uses the terms “serious reasons” (HV 10) and “just causes” (HV 16); Pius XII called them “grave reasons” and “serious motives” (Address to Midwives); the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls them “just reasons” (CCC, no. 2368); and Benedict XVI refers to them as “grave circumstances” (Message to Humanae Vitae Congress, Oct. 2, 2008).
The terms all amount to the same thing: reasonable doubt that a couple can fulfill the obligations of justice they already have—to each other, their already-existing children, others for whom they have primary responsibility—while caring well for new children.
John Paul II teaches: “In deciding whether or not to have a child, they must not be motivated by selfishness or carelessness, but by a prudent, conscious generosity that weighs the possibilities and circumstances, and especially gives priority to the welfare of the unborn child.”
If they have more than a reasonable doubt, that is, if they are pretty certain that another pregnancy would compromise their rightful justice obligations—say the wife has a detaching uterus and might bleed to death if she gets pregnant again, or they are a single income couple of modest means and the husband is unemployed, or they already have a high-maintenance special-needs child to care for, or they are caring in the home for an Alzheimer’s parent or in-law—then they might have a moral obligation to avoid pregnancy. In other words, it might be wrong for them deliberately to seek to get pregnant. It follows that good discernment is critical.
Saying “we’ll accept children lovingly from God” does not mean accepting children without ongoing and serious discernment. Conscientious Christian couples would never buy a new house without discussing and discerning it, relocate to another city, change careers, or even buy a new car. Having a child is much more serious, and a much graver responsibility, than any of these.
Abstaining Couples Should Be Generous To One Another
Spouses who discern that they should avoid pregnancy, should be careful not lead one another into temptation. Husbands should never pressure their wives to have intercourse. They should especially avoid emotional coercion: e.g., grumbling, criticizing their wives, acting emotionally cold, etc.
Wives should conscientiously “chart” their cycle so that their husbands are not required to abstain longer than is necessary. It may be a sin against their husbands if they do not take due consideration for the temptations that their husbands experience during times of abstinence.
What Difference Does Faith Make?
I have heard the objection: “This analysis sounds overly rationalistic. Shouldn’t faith make a difference to how we choose in relation to having children?”
To be sure, faith opens human reason to an awareness of possibilities that might not be seen without faith. Chief among them is people’s true capacity for self-sacrificing love and hence their capacity to welcome new life. So couples that come to their family planning with a lively Christian faith are likely to end up having more children than they otherwise would.
But faith is not contrary to reason. And reason that is in harmony with, and not opposed to, faith, is trustworthy.
Moreover, faith does not alter reality. If couples have good reasons grounded in justice to believe that they will not be able to maintain well their present duties while taking on more grave duties, then faith doesn’t change that.
Faith might change how much suffering I am willing to endure for myself in accepting additional responsibilities; I might even accept heroic suffering.
Faith does not, however, justify me in accepting suffering for someone else for whom I have responsibility unless I am morally certain that it is God’s will for that person.