Every now and then an article is written that doesn't so much as set the trend in the blogosphere but tells in public what many were thinking in private. As a result, serious discussion develops. Very few remember one sentence from Alice Von Hildebrand's takedown of Christopher West. What they do remember was that a lion of Catholicism had finally given some much needed fraternal correction to Mr. West. She said in her eloquence what many had been thinking.
I think Danielle Bean over at Crisis Magazine has done something similar. If nothing else, she causes me to think.
I remember several years ago I was on a first date with a lady. During that date, out of the blue, she asked "do you plan on using Natural Family Planning during your marriage?" From the love of baseball to thermometer reading and charting. This is an experience no (then) 23 year old should go through. In discussing the rather absurd and bizarre situation with a friend, he gave what was probably the best reply I've heard. "Me and my wife are firm believers in Natural Family Planning. I plan on hitting the lotto, then having my family naturally."
Like Ms. Bean, I do not intend to dog on NFP. It has always been permitted by the Church under certain conditions. My problem is with what I call "The Church of NFP", or when I'm in a slightly more polemical mood "NFP or Die."
For these individuals, NFP is not just something couples should consider prudently. To not practice NFP is to show a lack of prudence. In their mind, to not engage in NFP is to abandon "responsible parenthood." That they cannot cite one magisterial document which says every Catholic should practice NFP is irrelevant. They base their understanding on John Paul II's Man and Woman He Created Them. That John Paul II never said such a thing is once again irrelevant. (Like the defenders of the school of thought of Christopher West come to think of it!)
I cannot speak to all of the reasons Ms. Bean gives. I'm a single Catholic male, so I can't speak about "fertility symptoms", breastfeeding and all that jazz. Yet the other points she gave made me think about a lot of things.
First, those who are practicing NFP need to answer one question: Why? The Church is clear that if sufficient reasons are evident, NFP may (not must) be practiced. Yet I think Catholics should ask themselves honestly: is this really done? I would very confidently wager that answer is a negative. When they are considering economic needs, are they considering true subsistence style living, to where it would be near impossible to provide a child with basic necessities, or are they considering that they won't be able to pay a full ride at a four year university and grad school for all their children? Worse yet, are they doing it for their own selfish reasons, as having children will deprive them of worldly benefits? For mental and spiritual reasons, is there a genuine concern, or is there just uncomfortable feeling?
Better yet, are they discussing these matters with an independent third party, who can consider the spiritual reasons for why they are practicing NFP? In other words, how involved is a sound orthodox priest (preferably their spiritual director) in these discussions? People are masters at rationalizing their behavior. Sometimes we need an independent third party to tell us we are doing it wrong. Simply saying you are discussing it with your doctor isn't good enough. They may have the medical knowledge, but they do not have the knowledge of being able to provide spiritual direction. (Very few of them at least.)
If one is doing these things, these words aren't for you. If you've done these things and still arrive at the prudential consideration to employ Natural Family Planning, then such is your choice. All I'm saying is that somewhere along the way, people got the mistaken notion that to not practice NFP at all times was somehow the sign of a sinful Catholic couple.
I'd also like to talk about "responsible" parenting. Somewhere and I have no clue where, "responsible" parenting became about the number of children you have, rather than the quality of how those children were raised. Do you have ten children? Are all of those children raised in the Catholic faith, given access to the sacraments? Is a high emphasis placed upon education? Do you present your children with an environment and opportunity to practice authentic Christian virtues? Congratulations, you are doing "responsible" parenting, even if you live in a small house and the children wear hand me downs. This is just as true if you have even just one child.
On the topic of shame, Ms. Bean is even stronger. I personally do not need to hear about an individual woman's fertility cycle, mucus, etc. The only woman I will need to hear that about is when I'm married, and she is my wife. I've beaten this subject to death in the things I've written in regards to Theology of the Body/Christopher West, so I will be brief. Sharing these details so casually is a violation of the sacredness of the body and the marital embrace.
The final topic I would like to touch on would be a delicious irony, were it not so tragic. In pushing "sex is holy", the church of NFP makes it less holy. The marital embrace is only discussed about on the natural level. If husband and wife come together, there is a "risk" (oh how I hate such talk!) a child would be conceived. Many in the TOB crowd claim their critics focus too much on the pro-creative aspects of the marital embrace, and not the unitive. They rightly point out God created the marital embrace as a way of strengthening the bonds of marriage. Every time husband and wife come together, they are renewing their marital vows in a very special way. done properly, one could say it is a way of making present the grace one receives during the Sacrament of Matrimony. Out of such selfless love (where neither party seeks their own gratification), a new life is created through our participation in God's creative work.
With all the emphasis solely on child-bearing, the church of NFP robs the marital embrace of much of its power. Husband and wife coming together to renew their marital vows for their sanctification is viewed as a "failure" in abstinence. To engage in perfectly normal marital relations is not a failure. While we must always be careful to ponder our intentions (i.e. we must make sure we are not coming together for selfish reasons), it is truly scandalous that the church of NFP makes them think otherwise. Sadly, the author herself even falls into this trap. "Struggling with abstinence" in the married life is suggested as a struggle with purity. Now this may be the case. Yet why should one assume that a wife struggles with purity if she desires to engage in the marital embrace with her husband? Why should a husband be prohibited from renewing his wedding vows with the woman he has pledged to give up everything for? Because a chart says is a terrible reason. They are heeding, in a very special way, the call to become "one flesh." Now there may exist reasons and circumstances where periodic continence is advised. Yet such situations are meant to be temporary.
In the end, I fear we Catholics today have a fear of giving up control. We foolishly think we are in control of every aspect of our lives, including fertility. Yet this is nonsense. God is in control. He may choose to work through our voluntary free will in the marital embrace, but He is still in control. The idea a pregnancy should be viewed as a "surprise" or "unplanned" amongst married couples is shameful. By engaging in the marital embrace, one "planned" the possibility that a child may be born. Now one may wish to take prudent steps, in accordance with nature, to space births for various reasons, but our plans can and will go astray if God thinks the better of it. We shouldn't look at that as a bad thing. God might see the discipline and self control in a couple practicing NFP and go "You know, such restraint is a great quality in a parent, and even better in a child, so I will help them conceive."
How much of this enters the NFP discussion? Check the comments at the site of the article. All are worth reading.