Marriage and the use of Natural Family Planning

by Thomas Storck

In the April 20, 2002 University Concourse our esteemed Editor wrote an article entitled “Abusing NFP.” I am offering this article in support of her conclusions, although I will approach the question using a different line of argument.

The matter at issue here is when is it licit for a married couple to make use of natural family planning to postpone or avoid having children. Mrs. van Schaijik discusses the opinions of those who believe that licit use of NFP is very rare—e.g. when there are serious health problems on the part of the mother, serious financial difficulties, etc. Those who take this view would say that to postpone or avoid a new child for such reasons as stress, depression or fatigue would be selfish and sinful. Neither Mrs. van Schaijik nor I have anything to say against those heroic couples who freely and lovingly choose to accept as many children as God wishes to send them; indeed, we both think that such couples have a special place in our Lord’s Sacred Heart. Rather the problem arises with those who try “to impose an obligation on all married couples that is not to be found in the teachings of the Church, viz., that unless prevented by nature or emergencies, all married couples ought to have large families; and, correlatively, no couple should make use of NFP, except in very rare cases….”1

In the first place, let us consider the traditional primary end of marriage. As put in a standard pre-Vatican II theological manual, “Finis principalis Matrimonii est generatio et educatio prolis,”2 that is, “the principal end of marriage is the procreation and education of children.” Now the important thing to note about this for our purposes is that the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children. And of course education here means much more than schooling. Perhaps it could best be rendered as formation, the entire spiritual, moral, intellectual, social and physical shaping of a child, so that he can serve God in this world and attain eternal life in the next. Obviously in order to be educated a child must first be generated and born. But, as we see too evidently around us, not all children who are procreated are educated. And if parents are indeed the first and primary educators of their children,3 then the state of their health, both physical and psychological, has a great impact on their ability to educate their children. Thus if parents are stressed or constantly tired or overworked, they are not apt to be the best educators of their children. I am not speaking of their ability to ferry their children around for the latest in art or music lessons or sports camps or whatever. No, I am thinking of the daily interaction of parents and children and the strength needed by parents for the sometimes arduous task of rearing their children. It does not conduce to forming children psychologically if their parents are frequently irritable or overly critical. Yet, as is obvious, fatigue and stress tend to bring out such negative qualities in human beings.

Of course, one might argue that the best lesson that parents can give their children is that of generous sacrifice to God. And I certainly do not deny the value of this lesson. But I question the ability of anyone to look into anyone else’s heart or into the privacy of any other family and pronounce whether those parents are living up to the high calling of the sacrament of matrimony or yielding to self indulgence and taking the easy way out.4   Everyone knows mothers who bear eight, ten or twelve children and who manage such large households with aplomb. But not everyone has their emotional and physical resources and no one else can rightly criticize those who do not have such physical and emotional gifts.

The second line of argument I want to pursue involves a discussion of the purpose of child bearing in conjunction with God’s original command to Adam and Eve, “Increase and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). One of the chief insights in the Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophic tradition is that every action has an end. Things exist for a purpose. God’s command to Adam and Eve was to bring about the peopling of the earth. And certainly the birth of every human being is a good. But the duty of married couples to have children is rationally related to the population needs of the world and the Church.

A very interesting discussion of this question took place in the 1950s and early 1960s by moral theologians entirely orthodox and loyal to the Church’s Magisterium. In particular, let us look at a work written by Jesuit Fathers John C. Ford and Gerald Kelly, volume 2, Marriage Questions, of their Contemporary Moral Theology, published in 1964.5   Frs. Ford and Kelly opine that, even with absolutely no excusing cause based on health, economics, etc., no married couple is bound by the law of God to have more children than is necessary for the general conservation and gradual increase of the human race. They state, “There may be difficulty in determining the exact limit for various countries; but certainly today in the United States a family of four children would be sufficient to satisfy the duty.”6   Such an approach to the question of use of natural family planning was not limited to these two authors. As they state, “Verbal acceptance of the theory was expressed by a great majority of some thirty moral theologians who discussed it at Notre Dame in June, 1952, on the occasion of the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America.”7   I am not here holding up the minimum as an ideal. But we have no right to criticize someone else for what is in fact not a sin. Nor can we confuse a counsel of perfection with a duty or expect others to achieve what might be for them heroic virtue.

This discussion by Frs. Ford and Kelly took place against a backdrop of generally large Catholic families and a healthy birthrate in society at large. Today we have the opposite. The population of some European countries has already fallen in absolute numbers, and in many others will soon begin to fall drastically unless those countries consent to be overwhelmed by Muslim immigrants. One could thus argue that, at least in Europe, Catholic families ought not to consider their duty to Church and state as fulfilled with four children. And I think there is something to be said for arguing thus. Therefore I include this discussion less for the specific numbers that Frs. Ford and Kelly calculated nearly forty years ago than to bring forward the principle that licit use of natural family planning depends on many factors and cannot be reduced to a simple formula of ‘Have as many children as possible, unless you have a grave reason not to.’

Lastly, let us look at what Pope Paul VI actually said about this question in Humanae Vitae, no. 16.

If, then, there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions….”

The Latin original of the first part of the sentence runs, “Si igitur iustae adsint causae generationes subsequentes intervallandi, quae a coniugum corporis vel animi condicionibus….” I have italicized the word usually translated as “serious,” and it is in the Latin “iustae,” that is, just. So it would appear that Pope Paul was simply stating that the causes for making use of natural family planning must be just causes, i.e., not frivolous.8

I close this article with simply these words of our Lord, “Woe to you lawyers also! for you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:46).

Thomas Storck is the author of The Catholic Milieu (1987), Foundations of a Catholic Political Order (1998), Christendom and the West (2000) and of numerous articles and reviews on Catholic culture and social teaching. He is a member of the editorial board of The Chesterton Review and a contributing editor of New Oxford Review.

  1. Kathleen van Schaijik, “Abusing NFP,” p. 11 (emphasis in original). ↑
  2. A. Tanquerey, Brevior Synopsis Theologiae Dogmaticae, 6th ed. (Paris: Societas Sti. Joannis, c. 1923) p. 730. It would probably be possible to find literally hundreds of places—encyclicals, the 1917 Code of Canon Law, statements of Roman congregations, theology textbooks, catechisms, rotal decisions—where this teaching was repeated. Some have argued that Gaudium et Spes, no. 50, changed this teaching on the existence of a primary end of marriage. Space does not allow me to go into this controversy in this article, but suffice it to say that the Church has not and could not change this teaching. ↑
  3. Cf. Gravissimum Educationis, no. 3; John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, nos. 36-38. ↑
  4. Moreover, natural family planning is perhaps not so easy to misuse as some seem to think. Unlike contraceptive use, where, especially with the pill, couples can go on unthinkingly contracepting for years on end, with NFP each month a couple must rethink their decision to postpone or avoid the possibility of a pregnancy. And, thanks to the God-given attraction of the sexes for each other, they have a strong incentive to throw caution to the winds. ↑
  5. (Westminster, Md. : Newman, 1964) Lest anyone think that Frs. Ford and Kelly were part of the phalanax of dissenting moralists which at that period was just beginning to operate in the open, the authors explicitly state that the Church can never approve of contraception. “The Church is so completely committed to the doctrine that contraception is intrinsically and gravely immoral that no substantial change in this teaching is possible. It is irrevocable.” p. 277 (Emphasis in original) Remember that in this period, between approximately 1963 and the appearance of Humanae Vitae in 1968, few would have been so bold as to make such a statement. Fr. Ford went on to publish an important article (co-authored with Germain Grisez) in the June 1978 issue of Theological Studies, “Contraception and the Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium,” arguing for the infallibility of the teaching contained in Humanae Vitae. ↑
  6. Ibid., p. 423. ↑
  7. Ibid., p. 422. ↑
  8. In the volume of post-Vatican II documents edited by Austin Flannery (Vatican Council II : More Postconciliar Documents, Boston : Daughters of St. Paul, c. 1982), iustae is translated as “reasonable” (p. 405). ↑