This is part two of an essay about NFP and that notorious “contraceptive mentality.” In part one, I discussed where the phrase originally came from and what it means, and a bit about the difference between contraception and using NFP to avoid pregnancy. This essay can be read independently, but I’d rather you read part 1 first!
grave reasons to avoid pregnancy?
It is true that you can’t avoid having a baby for just any old reason, or for no reason at all, as long as you’re using NFP to do so.
Pius XII said in 1951:
The mere fact that the couple do not offend the nature of the act, and are prepared to accept and bring up the child (which in spite of their precautions came into the world), would not be sufficient in itself to guarantee the rectitude of intention and the unobjectionable morality of the motives themselves.
In other words: you’re not magically insulated from sinning just because you don’t use contraception.
[T]o embrace the married state, continuously to make use of the faculty proper to it and lawful in it alone,[in other words: to have sex] and on the other hand, to withdraw always and deliberately, with no serious reason from its primary obligation, would be a sin against the very meaning of conjugal life.
Pretty serious stuff. He’s saying that if you get married and then only ever have sex in infertile times without a serious reason, then you are sinning against marriage itself.
People who look down on NFP love to throw about this quote and say, “SEEEEE? Pius XII said that if you don’t have a baby every 18 months, it’s basically not even a marriage!”
Some Catholics will tell you you have to be just about dying before you can consider putting off conception. You have to be in a concentration camp, or you have to have cancer, or your roof just blew off, or your head just fell off.
But that is not what the Church teaches. She asks us to think carefully, to pray, to consider our other children and our other responsibilities, and to behave in a loving and considerate manner to our spouses, and then to decide whether or not this is a good time to accept the great gift of a child.
The Church (in Pius XII’s Address to Italian Midwives and Paul VI in Humanae Vitae) gives us examples of the categories of reasons we can legitimately have for postponing or avoiding conception: “medical, eugenic, economic, and social reasons” or “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions.” But it doesn’t get specific. It just gives the general categories.
It doesn’t spell out the specific good reasons because they vary very widely from couple to couple, and in individual couples from year to year, or even month to month. Something that’s a serious reason for one couple might be no big deal for another couple; and something that was a huge concern when I was 20 might seem like nothing when I’m 40, or vice versa. (There’s an entire chapter about this, called, “Why Doesn’t the Church Just Make a List?” in my book.) I believe the lack of specificity from the Church is deliberate, because it’s an invitation for individuals to assess their particular situations, rather than taking shelter in (or running scared from) a “check box” mentality in their spiritual lives.
The man and woman confer the sacrament of marriage on each other, and so it is up to the two of them to decide, as the experts in their particular marriage, if they have a just, defensible reason for using NFP.
Maybe you don’t believe me! You hear people saying that the Church teaches you must have “grave reasons” to postpone pregnancy.
Well, it’s doesn’t. Angela Bonilla has done some great legwork here. Her essay is short, but here’s the even quicker version: In his address to Italian Midwives, Pius XII said “gravi motivi” which sure sounds like “grave motives” — which sure sounds like your motive has to be, like, “I’m almost in the grave, here!” But that’s called a “false cognate.” “Grave” in Latin sounds like it should translate directly to “grave” in English, but it doesn’t.
A better translation of the phrase, and the translations which now appear on the Vatican website, uses the following phrases when it talks about the reasons for using NFP to space or avoid pregnancy: “serious reasons,” “just causes,” “worthy and weighty justifications,” “defensible reasons,” and “just reasons.” Janet Smith, no loosey goosey liberal squish, says that “the range of reasons is broader and perhaps more liberal than many think.”
And these just and serious reasons, as Pius XII said, “not infrequently arise.” Ask yourself: if you have to be in super duper agonizing trouble before you can use NFP, then why did he say that they happen a lot? The Church asks us to be careful and thoughtful. The Church does not ask us to ruin ourselves, or to absolutely refuse to listen to our doctors, or to refuse to listen to our spouses, before we can use NFP. The Church cares for us more than that.
obedience is educational
So. Am I saying that any reason at all is a good enough reason to put off having kids? Am I saying that it’s impossible to use NFP for trivial or selfish reasons?
No. It can happen. Nice young lady is planning her wedding, and she’s making a checklist of everything important: buy 43 yards of burlap and gross of mason jars for centerpieces at the reception, schedule a bunch of tanning sessions, and lay in a good stock of games for the honeymoon just in case she’s fertile on her wedding night, because duh, she’s getting married to her boyfriend, not to a bunch of babies. Babies are smelly little crotch goblins, and they ruin your abs and ruin your fun, and probably she’ll work her way around to having one at some point when she needs attention, but she truly cannot see what having a baby has to do with the super awesome love story she’s documenting on Instagram right now.
That there would be a selfish reason to use NFP. Most people can see that there is something wrong with this attitude. It’s one thing to expect more from your marriage than simply cranking out babies, but it’s another to despise the very idea of having children. This is not what the Church had in mind when it says that “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children” and that children are the supreme gift of marriage.
Familiaris Consortio says, “The future of humanity passes by way of the family.” The Church really means this. The Church is not okay with us thinking of sex and marriage as fun and babies as gross.
But goodness knows, there are other ways to be selfish in marriage besides selfishly refusing to consider having a baby. People like to speak as if eagerly conceiving is generous, and trying to avoid conceiving is selfish, but married love is more complicated and more demanding than that.
As one commenter said:
You can be selfish by imprudently indulging your sexual desires without consideration for the good of your spouse or of existing children or of any child that might result. Or you can be selfish by refusing to even discuss the possibility of more children when your spouse desires them. You can be selfish by putting all of the burden of family planning decisions on your spouse, so that they have to tell you “yes” or “no” all the time. You can be selfish by withholding yourself to punish or try to manipulate your spouse when you’re unhappy with them. Or you can be selfish by making sexual demands of your spouse when you know they feel unloved and used by you. You can be horribly selfish and abusive by coercing your spouse into sex through threats, force, or manipulation (psychological or religious).
Using NFP doesn’t automatically protect you from being selfish in these very serious ways, and neither does refusing to use NFP. People speak as if using NFP or not using NFP is the final word on what kind of marriage you have, but it’s really just the beginning.
But here’s the thing. A selfish, petty, immature view of sex and marriage very often corrects itself, over time, if you’re trying hard to be loving and obedient in other ways; because a loving marriage, a marriage that is obedient to what the Church really asks of us in its teaching on sexuality, is an educational marriage.
Think of all the dumb ideas you had about marriage when you were unmarried, or a newlywed. You were wrong about all sorts of things. You were immature. You were selfish. You were naive. You had stupid priorities. This is what it’s like, being young and inexperienced. You think you know so much, but you don’t.
And Jesus is willing to work with this. The Church just asks us to have the right overall intentions, more or less, and the Church asks us to try to be obedient, and to go to confession when we’re not. And starting with simple obedience, simply refusing to use contraception in marriage, is an excellent start.
If a young couple in the 21st century says, “All my friends have had IUDs since they were 14, my dad’s having a vasectomy party tomorrow, my step mom is angry at me for not giving her a grand dog instead, and my OB/GYN wrote “just an idiot” on my chart . . . but I’m going to install an app to keep track of my cervical fluid, because for some reason the Church says I should” — my friends, this is a big deal. This is really something big. That’s something the Holy Spirit can and almost certainly will build on.
Paul VI says in Humanae Vitae:
The teaching of the Church on the regulation of birth, which promulgates the divine law, will easily appear to many to be difficult or even impossible of actuation. And indeed, like all great beneficent realities, it demands serious engagement and much effort, individual, family and social effort. More than that, it would not be practicable without the help of God, who upholds and strengthens the good will of men.
In other words, it’s hard to go against the world, and the Church knows it. Even a celibate old white man knows it. Obedience, especially obedience in matters of sexuality, is hard – probably harder today than it ever has been, when we have people telling us we’re foolish and selfish and creepy and irresponsible for trying to behave as if our marriage vows actually mean something.
But Paul VI went on:
Yet, to anyone who reflects well, it cannot but be clear that such efforts ennoble man and are beneficial to the human community.
Obedience is the fertile soil where all kinds of wonderful fruits can grow, and woe to him who wants to barge in and trample all over a nice, new little garden just because it’s not already mature and bountiful like a well-established orchard that’s been cultivated and nourished for decades.
Paul VI acknowledges that the way of virtue is a process, not an instantaneous event, which is why he urges priests to preach the truth but to be gentle, encouraging, and loving, and urges married couples to keep praying, keep repenting, keep moving forward:
“without ever allowing themselves to be discouraged by their own weakness.”
It’s like the parable, where the one son refuses to obey his father, but then he feels bad about it and does what his father tells him to do after all. And Jesus says that that guy did his father’s will. Obedience to Christ — even immature obedience, even gloomy obedience, even half-understood obedience, even stop-and-start obedience — is a big deal. Jesus likes obedience. Jesus honors it. Jesus runs with it. He picks up the slack in our attitude, and He uses it to instruct us. I’ve seen it happen, over and over and over again. It’s happening to me right now.
So if you come across someone who’s using NFP for what seems to you to be trivial reasons, you really don’t need to defend Christian sexuality with a big heavy mallet and go, “NO! STOP! You are using NFP with a contraceptive mentality! You’re just like the rest of the world, and shame on you!”
If a Catholic you know is heading into marriage with the intention of never having children, then yes, you probably need to say something, especially if you think you’re in a position to prevent an invalid marriage from taking place and causing pain and sorrow down the road. The Church understands the very nature of marriage is a state that obligates us to at least be willing to accept the gift of children. That’s what marriage means. It means binding yourself together in front of God and becoming fruitful in the way that God wants you to be fruitful.
But marriage is instructive. It’s educational. Grace is educational. Obedience is educational.
back to grandma
Remember the very old grandmother, the one who needs your help? Remember how there was an undeniable difference between caring for her because you love her and then inheriting her fortune, and caring her to lull her into a false sense of security, murdering her, and inheriting her fortune? Let’s return to her.
Let’s say you go to her house with the intention of completely deceiving her. You’re just a jerk. You’re going to take care of her, but you’re just there for her money. You sweet talk her in the most insincere way, because you just don’t take her seriously as a human being. You just want to use her.
So you move in, and you go through the motions: you say good morning every morning, and comb her hair, wash her face, help her pick out her clothes, listen to her stories, look through her photos, live in her house . . . and slowly, you start to get attached. You start to realize that this is someone you actually care about, and that she actually cares about you.
And it changes you. When she dies, she leaves you her money, and yes, you’re happy about it.. But you’re even happier that you got to know her. You’re a different person now. You started out doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons, but if you keep at it, your reasons start to change. You start to change.
I get letters like this all the time, about NFP. People say, “I started out using contraception in my marriage, and then we switched to NFP because the Pill was making me crazy and giving me migraines and killing my sex drive. But had no intentions of ever having another baby, because I liked being a size 3, and I had this gorgeous white velvet couch.”
They say, “I wasn’t ready to hear the full message that the Church wanted to give to me. But we started using NFP over the years, and slowly, slowly we changed . . . ”
That’s a direct quote. This is what happens when you obey God, because his commands are not random. He has his reasons for asking us to do the things he asks of us: because he wants to teach us about about selves, and he wants to teach us about him. He wants to teach us how to love him.
the phrase makes more trouble than it’s worth
In the mean time, let’s just drop the phrase “contraceptive mentality.” Every single time I’ve seen the phase used, it’s used incorrectly, and this is dangerous.
It’s dangerous becuase encourages us to judge each other. “They use NFP, but are they using it in the right way?” Who cares? What, your own soul doesn’t keep you busy enough? It’s none of your business. You have no idea what their real reasons are. For all you know, they’d like a dozen children, but they can’t. In the mean time, you’re sinning by assuming anything. For real, that’s a sin.
It may actually cause other people to despair. It may be really, really, really hard for them to reject contraception. Telling them they’re obeying the Church but still failing can make them think, “Why bother?”There’s no way I can please such a demanding God.” And they will quit.
It can make marriage into a reductive numbers game. Generosity and fruitfulness and trust in God in marriage can take many forms besides pregnancy – and selfishness and pride and vanity can take many forms besides avoiding pregnancy.
It encourages us to approach God with fear, and to look for rules rather than seeking a relationship. I’ve seen this, too: a woman who’s clearly barely surviving, and she’s trembling, tears rolling down her cheeks, terrified that she’s committing the sin of contraception with her mentality. She completely forgot that God loves her and doesn’t want her to be miserable.
We would do better to speak less about sex and more about love. Less about how to manage conception, and more about how to grow in love.
DIscerning in your own marriage
I’ve been talking about refraining from judging other people’s motives for using NFP. But what about it the one we’re worried about is ourselves? What if we’re afraid we have selfish or petty reasons for using NFP, or that we actually do have a contraceptive mentality, in the strictest sense, even though we’re using NFP?
Well, maybe you do. NFP isn’t magic. Some people find NFP really simple and routine, and it would be fairly easy for them to just get in the habit of avoiding a pregnancy without really having to think about it much, so they never do.
I have heard that there are people like this. I don’t know if I’ve ever actually met one, but I suppose there are.
But decent people tend to question their own motives, and to wonder if they’re letting themselves off the hook. If you are uncertain about your reasons, and you’re troubled by the idea that your reasons to avoid pregnancy may not be legitimate, do start with being obedient, and offer your obedience to God. It can actually be a form of pride to persuade yourself that simple obedience isn’t good enough, and that your faith is so fancy, you have to do extra!
But then after obedience, ask God to open your ears to whatever is the next thing he’s telling you. Pray this a lot. Be patient. Let God speak to you on his own time. But here’s the thing: Be ready to hear that God is not mad at you. Be ready to hear that you’re not sinning. Be ready to be at peace for a time.
And you could ask yourself:
Do I actively hate children? Do I routinely describe babies as parasites or tumors? Do I throw rotten fruit at 15-passenger vans? Do I feel a deep sense of disgust and contempt when people talk about married love, chastity, fidelity, and goodness? Do I think the institution of the family should be abolished?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may have the contraceptive mentality that John Paul II was talking about. That “anti-life” mentality.
Here are some more questions to ask yourself:
Do I deeply fear children because I’m afraid they’re going to mess up my life when I got it just the way I like it? Do I avoid learning more about the Church’s teaching on sexuality because I’m afraid I’ll have to change something? Do I think of children mainly as a burden to be escaped, without making any effort to learn how to enjoy them? Am I using NFP as a sop to God, so he’ll retreat and leave me alone in the rest of my life?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, that doesn’t mean you should have another baby just to teach yourself a lesson; but maybe you are listening to the world too much. Or maybe you’re approaching your faith as a kind of checklist of sins to avoid, rather than as a relationship with God.
Or maybe you are having some spiritual difficulties that go beyond discerning family size. Sometimes fear and reluctance toward children has its origins in past or current abuse. Maybe you are in a material or emotional crisis and need help.
Maybe you just need to get caught up on sleep! See if there’s any way you can go on retreat. Try to commit to five minutes of morning prayer a day, and see if you feel more at peace with where you are and where you’re headed. And seriously, get caught up on sleep. It’s ridiculous how much it helps.
Maybe you’re just in a really hard season right now, and you need to give yourself some time, and you can revisit these questions later.
Here are some questions you cans ask yourself while you’re using NFP:
Does God make me nervous sometimes? Do I have mixed feelings about having a baby? Would I cry if I got pregnant right now? Do I feel like I’m done having babies? Do I sometimes feel angry and resentful about how difficult it can be to live the Church’s teaching on sexuality? Do I wish I could go to the bathroom without people pounding on the door asking for ice pops? Do I wish I could just have sex and not worry about it?
If you answer anything at all to these questions, you are probably a normal human being who is having a normal marriage. You’re fine. But do get some sleep. And remember, God isn’t mad at you.
But be content to start with obedience. At the heart of love for God is obedience. That is how all the saints express it: you start with doing what you can, and that’s how you let God into your heart — and there is no telling what he will do to the place, once he gets in.
This is especially true when we’re being obedient about sexuality. When we disobey God about sexuality, we make it into a dead thing. And no wonder it’s hard to understand, then, why we can’t just do it whenever we want, however we want: Because it doesn’t feel sacred. We allow ourselves to grasp it carelessly, like Uzzah, thinking it’s just another heavy thing to hoist around and move where we will. But inside it is something sacred, something that comes to us from eternity. You don’t just go grabbing it.
But when we do obey, even with white knuckles, God has this tendency, sometimes, to open up the ark and let us play.