by Carole Puccio
I write regarding Kathleen van Schaijik’s article on NFP in the February 13 issue of the Concourse. I was pleased to see this sensitive issue being discussed. I agree that we must becareful of judgementalism, since often we cannot judge whether or not one is in a state of sin. However, when the question is not sin, but the level of virtue one exemplifies, I believe we need to admit that some people display a particular virtue to a greater degree. For instance, when one sees the distinctive habit of a Sister of Charity, one thinks of the selfless love with which Mother Teresa ministers to people in need. This is impressive and in no way diminishes the love with which other religious serve people in their care. Just the same, when one sees a large family, as did the doctor refered to in her article, the blessing and generosity is obvious. This fact should not diminish the generosity of families whose blessings are less obvious. This also does not make one “more Catholic” since one is either Catholic. . . or not. The issue then cannot be “Catholicity.” It is in fact generosity. I too have been impressed by large families, but this is not just my opinion. It is also the Church’s.
“Among the married couples who thus fulfill their God-given mission, special mention should be made of those who after prudent reflection and common decision courageously undertake the proper upbringing of a large number of children.” (Gaudium et Spes 50, emphasis my own)
“Sacred Scripture and the Church’s traditional practice see in large families a sign of God’s blessing and the parents’ generosity.” (CCC 2373)
The Church herself recognizes the sign value of a large family, without dismissing the generosity of parents who, due to circumstances beyond their control are unable to have a large number of children. Children are “the supreme gift of marriage” (GS 50) and thus always and everywhere a blessing, even if their mother is bit “strung out.”
As for the issue of the interpretation of Humane Vitae, it seems the issue is the precise meaning of the words used to qualify appropriate reasons for the licit use of NFP. Under the heading “Responsible Parenthood” the document reads:“In relation to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth.”
There are two roads for responsible parents: generously raising a large family or the decision to postpone this for grave motives. The issue then is the meaning of “grave.” It is also the word used to qualify the matter necessary for a sin to be considered mortal. It seems to me the scope of meaning appropriate for the word “grave” in reference to mortal sin is the one that should also be used to determine the meaning of “grave” in reference to reasons to use NFP.
Carol Puccio, MA Theology program
Kathleen van Schaijik replies:
I am grateful for the opportunity Carol Puccio gives me to clarify my thoughts on this topic.
Here’s how I see it. The “providentialist” position is that the licit use of NFP is rare and always regrettable, whereas my claim is that it can be a “normal” part of Catholic family life, provided it is done in a right spirit, i.e. within the context of a generous and responsible ordination toward children. I claim further that the documentation (especially John Paul II’s statements) as well as the experience of the faithful bears out my interpretation. (If the Church meant us to be providentialists, why did she not speak more plainly? Why did she not simply say: “Christian parents, have large families if you can. Beware of NFP; it is seldom licit.”)
I do freely admit that many big families emanate the virtue of generosity. I will even happily grant that the Church has a certain “preferential love” for big families (I have it myself), in the same way she has a preferential love for the poor. My objection is to those who take this preference as a warrant for claiming that couples who choose not to have large families are thereby compromising in their vocation. Just as her preference for the poor does not justify us in presuming that unpoor Catholics (who, after all, could be poor, if they chose) are compromising in their commitment to the Faith, the Church’s praise of large families in no way implies that all families should be—if they could be—large.
Had the doctor limited himself to saying that the large Catholic families he encounters in his practice inspire him by their generosity, I would have had no quarrel with him. They inspire me too. What I objected to was an implication (perhaps unintended) that those who practice NFP are keeping one foot in the world, so to speak, and are less radically committed to their faith than those he termed “providentialist.” (True that people are not more or less Catholic in terms of their profession of faith; either they profess it or they do not. But they can be more or less Catholic to the extent they allow this profession to penetrate their day to day living. Surely there is some sense in speaking of a saint as being “more Catholic” than a person whose faith, though genuine, remains mainly on the periphery of his personal life.)
I cannot agree with Puccio’s having the discussion hinge on the word “grave.” To me the meaning of the term is clear enough: it means serious, weighty, important; it is the opposite of unserious, frivolous, insignificant. Did I ever in my article suggest that it was okay to use NFP for less than serious reasons? I think rather that part of the “providentialist problem” comes in with an unnatural stress on this word, which distorts is plain meaning, almost making it seem synonymous with “life-threatening.” I do not accuse Puccio herself of meaning this; indeed, I imagine we are really very close to each other (if not perfectly unified) in our opinions on the subject.