Friday, April 26, 2013

More (And Hopefully the End) on NFP

The article done yesterday about Dr. Jay Boyd's dismissal of NFP has caused quite a healthy level of discussion in my inbox, and the comboxes over at Dr. Boyd's essay have been quite lively.  I'd like to round up some of the responses I gave on those comboxes, and elaborate on those things said.

I still would like to renew my objection from yesterday that this discussion is even taking place, and that people who have absolutely no qualifications to do so are casting aspersions on Church teaching that they even concede currently exists.  Dr. Boyd does not deny the existence of the statements from Humanae Vitae and the other sources, she simply restricts the interpretation in a manner the Church does not.  She admits this, in hoping that the Church will "clarify" its teachings, and by "clarify" I mean "adopt positions Dr. Boyd advocates."  This does not change the present reality, which is that Dr. Boyd, a secular psychologist by trade, is writing a book stating that those following Church teaching are engaging in a spirituality which is opposed to Catholicism, and a view of marriage which cannot be reconciled with traditional Catholic sources.  I proved yesterday she is incorrect.  Yet even besides that, who is she to call into question the Churches authority to bind and loose in this area, especially considering that the teaching has been consistent whenever it has been raised?  Does this give anyone pause?

I really think we also need to acknowledge that this is an incredibly sensitive subject.   Even for those who advocate NFP when serious conditions exist, it can be very tough if not impossible to develop a definitive canon of "serious conditions."  The issues need to be handled with on a case by case basis.  Dr. Boyd pays lip service to these "serious conditions", but absent from this discussion is the role of confessors/spiritual directors in helping spouses to determine if such conditions actually exist.  The impulse to denigrate those who disagree with them as somehow not trusting in God, bad catholics, etc is not a sign of holiness, nor of a proper catholic mindset.  We are all impacted by concupiscence, and this needs to be taken into consideration when the issue is discussed between spouses and confessors.

Yet in the rush to defend NFP from Dr. Boyd's erroneous conclusions, I fear many are essentially ignoring that the limitations surrounding NFP are real, Vatican II didn't change them, and we need to be very careful and prayerful in deciding whether or not these conditions apply in our marriages.  This kind of thing would be helpful.

Thankfully, this work is already done by moral theologians, and it makes the challenge I issued all the more important.  I asked for any moral theologian before Vatican II who taught that NFP was sinful, since the time before the council (in the eyes of Dr. Boyd) is when things were done properly in this manner.  She did not provide a source, nor did any of her defenders in the comment boxes.  They provided popular evangelical works of Catholic piety, but not works of moral theology.  The reason it is so important in matters of moral theology is moral theology is not concerned with the ideal.  It is concerned with the simple: something is or isn't a sin.  When the consensus amongst them is as lopsided as it is on favoring NFP, there is a reason for that.

Now some will cite Aquinas and Augustine, claiming that since they reject the idea of using the marital embrace merely for pleasure, or condemning those who obstruct the natural power of the embrace in procreation, they are condemning NFP.  There are two ways to respond to this.  The proper response is that if these individuals taught so:  so what?  I hate to be flippant, but Aquinas and Augustine are not the Magesterium, and if you actually add their works into the consensus of moral theologians, canonists, catechisms, councils and Popes, the consensus would not be altered one iota.  Individual Catholics, no matter how learned, have erred.  This is why we trust in the Magesterium, which is protected by the Holy Spirit, and not in individual fathers and doctors, no matter how learned they be.

Yet must we believe that they have condemned NFP?  Pius XI taught the following about the marital embrace in Casti Conubii, and all Catholics must accept it as true:

Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power 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.
As Fr. Brian Harrison notes, the Latin for "deliberately frustrated in" is far better translated as "deliberately deprived."  In this instance, it is clear that Pius XI is rejecting contraception.  He cannot be rejecting NFP (periodic continence during fertility, and engaging in the marital embrace outside of fertility), since three paragraphs later, he states:

Nor are those considered as acting against nature who in the married state use their right in the proper manner although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth. For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.
It must also be noted that Pius XI teaches in the following paragraphs why these circumstances are not normative, and how one should presume they are not binding on you until proven otherwise.  With this balance struck, I think we can synthesize what Aquinas says as not contradicting either statement.  Those who are engaging in the marital embrace and deprive the power of procreation through artificial means are sinning.  So are those who engage in NFP for trivial reasons such as wanting to be able to continue traveling, afford more house than you need, the desire to emphasize the unitive aspects of marriage to the rejection of the procreative, or just the plain ordinary difficulty that married life carries with it.  All of these are wrong

In the citations Dr. Boyd gives, Aquinas is speaking of "marriage goods."  According to Pius XI, in addition to procreation, there exists marital goods such as "mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence."  These are not superior to procreation, but they can be considered by spouses as long as they are not depriving the marital act of the power of procreation.  Since they are engaging in the act when procreation is, if not impossible, highly unlikely, that is not robbing the act of the marriage good.

In addition to this, Aquinas uses the phrase "merely for pleasure" when discussing whether or not it is sinful.  This changes everything!  One who is using the marital embrace solely for their own gratification is completely distorting the sign of the marital embrace.  The embrace is meant to be a sign of self-denial, a "gift of self" where you are focused on the good of the other, not your own.  When seen in this context, the Holy Office in 1679 was absolutely right when they condemned the idea that "The act of marriage exercised for pleasure only is entirely free of all fault and venial defect."

Rest assured, those who are following NFP properly are not doing this!  One commenter states that this view is naive, and ignorant of the reality of concupiscence.  That concupiscence exists does not mean we become a Jansenist, and state that it is impossible to exercise properly the gifts God gives us.  These situations suggest the need for greater pastoral sensitivity, but they are technically irrelevant as to whether or not NFP is opposed to the traditional understanding of marriage.

I believe Dr. Boyd and several of those who agree with her are sincere in their attempts to oppose the contraceptive mindset which is rampant in society.  They are even correct in calling those out who use NFP as a form of "Catholic Contraception."  I sympathize with these concerns, and I wager that all good Catholics should as well.  Yet when she states that "NFP is all about a degree of control that is objectionable in any traditional Catholic understanding of marriage or Catholic spirituality in general", she is calling into question settled Church teaching.  The Catholic Church, in the person of 4 different popes, an ecumenical council, and a consistent consensus on this ever since the 1850's (when it became possible to engage in NFP due to a better medical understanding of fertility) has ruled that when used properly, Natural Family Planning is lawful.

This should be the end of the discussion amongst faithful Catholics.  Roma locuta est, causa finita est.


  1. [Even for those who advocate NFP when serious conditions exist, it can be very tough if not impossible to develop a definitive canon of "serious conditions." The issues need to be handled with on a case by case basis.]

    Indeed. I suggest we all approach this in the manner the Sacred Penitentiary set out for confessors to handle the matter and not presume we should somehow do more than they were told to do. To wit (circa 1932):

    "Spouses who use the matrimonial right in the manner described in the inquiry, [namely only on the days which are considered to be infertile] should not be disturbed. The Confessor may prudently suggest this method to spouses if he has tried in vain to persuade them with other arguments to stop the detestable crime of Onanism."

    In other words, if we cannot persuade folks to cease with unnatural methods, suggest the natural way and leave how they implement it as a matter between them, their spouse, and their confessor.

  2. We skipped out on the "mandatory" NFP course for our diocesan engagement class. I can't tell you how many people immediately talk about NFP to us when they find out we're engaged. For goodness sakes! We're getting married to start a family! I have gotten more in one of the hour marriage classes with our priest than the whole day event required by the diocese (unfortunately).

    Best wishes in your marriage! These are tough times for Catholic families and we have got to stick together!

  3. Hello Andrea,

    At my Church, one only has to be aware of the teachings surrounding NFP. You can choose to take it through formal classes, through qualified instructors, online classes, reading the manual yourself, etc. You don't need to participate in it, and Father makes the point that the default state in a marriage is to not practice NFP.

    He also made sure to handle the marriage classes and do em right. No stupid questionaires, role playing excercises, "communication" sessions, just laying out the teaching on marriage, on sexuality, the importance of the sacraments in married life, ways to foster a catholic culture/identity amongst your future children, etc.

    I can understand why in some cases the catholic church wants these classes to be attended though. Not everyone is like we are on the blogosphere (or those who read comboxes), and encouraging priestly discretion would just likely lead to ignoring this stuff alltogether, so contraception doesn't get in the way of marriage. I don't like it. I too am getting married to start a family and pledge myself to my bride. Yet it isn't an unreasonable request. I'm a loyal traditionalist, we obey all laws and regulations given by the competent ecclesiastical authority, no matter how stupid, misguided or irrelevant to our particular states. :)

  4. I guess I just can't make that clear enough: I'm not the largest fan of the way NFP is presented in a lot of places. After talking with my future spouse, neither of us see a reason (at this time) to practice NFP, and would only do so after discussion with our priest and a doctor if need be. In as much as Dr. Boyd condemns a lot of that stuff, I join her in condemning them.

    When she makes the statements that NFP is opposed to Catholic spirituality, that we really need to seriously worry about sin in the marital act amongst spouses (especially those not our own!), and that those who choose to practice NFP are turning their back on divine providence, these are things you just can't say. They aren't true, and besides, the Church has clearly permitted their usage in certain circumstances, so even if we thought that, we had best keep our mouth shut in passing judgment.

  5. Hey Kevin, I am of two minds on this issue. The first as a Catholic traditionalist faithful to Rome who has often promoted Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio in pro-life work. The second mind is as a tribunal canonist who sees the practical effects of the contraceptive culture on marriage.

    I agree that for faithful Catholics who fully embrace Church teaching, the whole NFP cheer leading in premarital preparation programs can be annoying. As you point out, the defacto position is to not practice NFP because of our openness to large families and wanting to get started right away. Thus I think some common sense is required with regards to diocesan requirements when it comes to premarital preparation among faithful traditionalists who are most active in defending the Church's teaching with regards to conjugal relations and the moral dangers of contraception.

    On the other hand, much of my tribunal ministry and day-to-day pastoral ministry concerns the breakdown of marriage. Artificial contraception is a huge factor in this. Additionally, many young Catholic couples either are not aware of Church teaching in this area, or only vaguely aware of Church teaching and the reasons behind it. Sadly, this is the case with the majority of Catholic couples today in North America who seek to marry. So NFP is an excellent doorway to teach these couple what Church believes and why.


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