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Seattle Catholic is not affiliated with the Archdiocese of Seattle
Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
25 Oct 2002
Substituting the Exception for the Rule

by Peter W. Miller

- St. Catherine of Siena -
born 23rd in a family of 24 children


Over the years, a favorite tactic of those not caring for certain Church regulations or teachings has been to hunt for a particular exception or exemption, however small it may be, then use it to justify their subversion of the original rule or doctrinal element. American bishops and modern liturgists have employed this skill quite effectively to produce, among other things, extraordinary ministers in virtually every parish and the rapidly-expanding practice of "lay preaching" during Mass.

Although bishops and priests employing such tactics certainly causes greater harm, lay Catholics are not immune from the tendency to embrace an excepting clause on some article of faith or morals they find inconvenient. From the general expectation of salvation for non-Catholics to the presumption of irregular sacramental jurisdiction to the avoidance of tithing obligations, several examples can be discussed; but perhaps the most common instance in this writer's experience relates to what is known as "Natural Family Planning."

For the purposes of the essay, "Natural Family Planning" (NFP) and "periodic abstinence" will be used interchangeably. Although NFP-enthusiasts are quick to remind me that the "planning" aspect of NFP includes both causing and avoiding pregnancies, it's the "avoiding" which provides the greater impetus for NFP's use since "causing" pregnancies through marital relations under normal circumstances requires little special planning, as the current and historical population of the world has so aptly demonstrated.

"The Church teaching on contraception makes a lot of sense..."

I wouldn't consider myself the most outgoing individual on the planet, but perhaps since I appear to be approachable, there are a number of occurrences (for better or for worse) in which people will attempt to engage me in conversation. One such incident happened while waiting in line for confession at a local parish. In what I'd imagine is not atypical for other places in the country, this particular parish which easily fills hundreds of people into its three weekend Masses struggles to find a handful in the Saturday afternoon confession line.

This particular Saturday, I was the first to arrive and had begun my examination of conscience when another person — a woman in her mid-thirties — came and took her place in line behind me. As she was making her way to that eventual position, she made several loud comments to no one in particular which led me to believe she wasn't the biggest advocate of silence. I turned my body and buried my nose further into my missal, hoping to send the signal that I was too busy preparing for something to talk, but it was not to be. After she repeated a question first ignored and seemed altogether unencumbered by the complete lack of response, I resigned myself to have to make chit-chat while waiting for the priest to arrive.

"So how long ya been married?" was the question as she gestured to my wedding band. I don't remember the exact response or the sequence to follow, but it turned out she taught Natural Family Planning classes in the parish. No doubt trying to be helpful and knowing that I'm young and had recently been married, she asked if my wife and I had taken an NFP course "yet". After she rebuked several failed attempts to politely tell her "no thanks," I finally let her know that I had little interest in or use for Natural Family Planning. After hearing this, she gave me a semi-disgusted look and quickly quieted down. Attributing this reaction to the "old-fashioned Catholics are the greatest evil mankind has ever known" attitude I usually get when I say I attend a Latin Mass or offer a quote from the Syllabus, I didn't give it much more thought and took the opportunity to complete my preparations.

On the way out of the confessional, as I was trying to figure out whether the priest telling me to choose my own penance invalidated the sacrament, I ran into my newfound acquaintance who had taken the opportunity to retrieve a pamphlet from her car. She handed it to me, letting me know that "the Church teaching on contraception makes a lot of sense and I know that if you pray hard enough, you'll do the right thing." Still a little confused and disoriented, she bounced into the confessional before I could respond. The pamphlet was a summary of Magisterial texts forbidding artificial contraception and ended with the plug of NFP as the "Christian way for married couples to achieve true happiness and holiness!"

What my new friend (let's call her Jan) seemed to believe, and which my encounters with other people have shown to be not terribly uncommon, was that the only reasonable alternative to artificial contraception (and perhaps even abortion) was Natural Family Planning. Although I didn't expect a word like "Providence" to be in her vocabulary, it didn't seem to occur to her that I had no reason or desire to willfully limit or "space" my children. This peculiar "either-or" tendency is borne out by those who pronounce their utilization of periodic abstinence to demonstrate their Catholicism. I regularly receive emails or read Internet postings from individuals proudly proclaiming their practice of NFP. Although it seems a rather private thing to publicly announce, I guess those who do so see it as equivalent to rejecting contraception and artificial birth control.

Just how grave is "grave"?

The Church teaches that periodic abstinence can be morally acceptable only when certain conditions are met. These conditions include:

  • Mutual consent on the part of both spouses.
  • The ability to engage in the practice without risking sins against chastity.
  • A grave, serious reason for doing so.

    Pope Pius XII discussed this final condition in 1951 when he referred to:

    "serious motives, such as those which not rarely arise from medical, eugenic, economic and social so-called 'indications,' may exempt husband and wife from the obligatory, positive debt for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life. From this it follows that the observance of the natural sterile periods may be lawful, from the moral viewpoint, and it is lawful in the conditions mentioned. If, however, according to a reasonable and equitable judgment, there are no such grave reasons either personal or deriving from exterior circumstances, the will to avoid the fecundity of their union, while continuing to satisfy to the full their sensuality, can only be the result of a false appreciation of life and of motives foreign to sound ethical principles." 1

    Pius XII used the terms "serious motives" and "grave reasons." Seventeen years later in Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI used "grave motives" and "serious motives":

    "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."

    "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, for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only, and in this way to regulate birth without offending the moral principles which have been recalled earlier." 2

    What exactly constitutes which motives and reasons are sufficiently "grave" or "serious"? This is a question that has not fully been examined by theologians and is left more to the determination of each individual Catholic (with the aid of his confessor). While I certainly cannot see into the soul of any individual to know just how grave and serious their reasons for practicing Natural Family Planning truly are, the almost ubiquitous practice among residents in an affluent country of a technique intended for serious and grave conditions is generally a cause for concern. Analogously, I do not pretend to know or presume the state of any individual's soul as he approaches the altar to receive the Blessed Sacrament, but when weekend after weekend, a parish goes through over a thousand hosts while averaging two people in the confessional line, the observed state of affairs indicates that all is not well.

    The most common definitions for "grave" are "requiring serious thought" and "fraught with danger or harm." The Magisterium itself also uses the term "grave" when dealing with the most serious or critical events and circumstances, such as the dangers posed by the devil, the tormentations of Christ during His Passion and the obligatory nature of moral law. It is also used when referring to heinous and reserved sins such as abortion:

    1463: Certain particularly grave sins incur excommunication, the most severe ecclesiastical penalty, which impedes the reception of the sacraments and the exercise of certain ecclesiastical acts, and for which absolution consequently cannot be granted, according to canon law, except by the Pope, the bishop of the place or priests authorized by them.

    Fittingly enough, the late Fr. John Hardon used this same term to describe the mortal dangers of contraception:

    "The practice of contraception is a grave sin. Those who indulge in the practice are in danger of losing their immortal souls.... Christianity has always held, holds now, and always will hold, that contraception is a serious offense against God. Unless repented, it is punishable by eternal deprivation of the vision of God, which we call eternal death." 3

    The seriousness surrounding the use of the word "grave" is evident throughout current and past teachings, encyclicals and catechisms. So what situations would constitute a "grave reason" for periodic abstinence? In perhaps the only concrete guideline to come specifically from a pope, Pius XII offered the example of a mother for whom pregnancy and childbirth presented a serious risk of death.

    Again, the public announcement of one's own usage of NFP seems uncharacteristic of someone afflicted with such grave cause as to avoid procreation — particularly when presented as a demonstration of Catholic fidelity rather than a plea for compassion. More disturbing still are those who openly publish their motives for NFP'ing, presumably unaware of or unconcerned with those reasons' objective gravity. From personal information openly shared by various Catholics on the Internet, these "serious motives" and "grave reasons" include: wanting "to become comfortable with the marriage first," desiring "to be in a house first," thinking that "children close together [won't] get the proper amount of attention," wanting to "finish school so I'd have more time to be at home with the children," and even "in our current economic situation, four is the most children we determined could reasonably put through college." At a recent USCCB Forum on NFP, a presenting married couple extolling the benefits of periodic abstinence openly recounted how:

    "At the beginning of our married life, we used NFP to avoid pregnancy, as the time was not right for it." 4

    I would venture a guess that the above reasons which I would hardly consider objectively "grave" or "serious" would sound to most Catholic laymen and priests as representing perfectly acceptable cause to prevent childbirth. Not that such impressions are without some sort of foundation — in one of the more mysterious parts of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI addresses a hypothetical question with what appears to be an approval (so long as contraception is avoided) of some justifications hard to classify as "grave":

    "Now some may ask: in the present case, is it not reasonable in many circumstances to have recourse to artificial birth control if, thereby, we secure the harmony and peace of the family, and better conditions for the education of the children already born? To this question it is necessary to reply with clarity: the Church is the first to praise and recommend the intervention of intelligence in a function which so closely associates the rational creature with his Creator; but she affirms that this must be done with respect for the order established by God." 5

    Furthermore, Papal pronouncements since Humanae Vitae have not addressed this matter of gravity, opting rather to emphasize the "dignity" of the individuals involved in such decisions. Just as I have no competence to judge the intentions of souls, I'm in no position to set guidelines for gravity where the Church has not. Given the other topics to which the Church has attached the term "grave", I can determine for myself and my family what situations would and would not qualify as morally acceptable — considerations which would certainly take into account our family's condition in comparison to other parts of the world and past periods in history.

    Although she may not remember me, if I'm presented with another opportunity to speak with Jan, I'm going to clarify for her that my wife and I are not interested in practicing Natural Family Planning because we had no "grave reason" to do so. We are both young, healthy adults. I have a modest job that pays enough to feed our family and pay rent on a small, yet livable apartment. There are even a number of luxuries in our lives that we can do without or items we could sell should it become necessary. Even without such a job and accommodations, we have the support of family and friends, and, if it came down to it, a first-world country's social programs at our disposal. Under significantly worse financial and physical conditions, both of our parents put their trust in God and were blessed with large families. We have every intention of doing the same and are an awful long way from any condition I would consider "grave" or "serious".

    "Responsible Parenthood"

    "I am not pleased with the statement in the text that married couples may determine the number of children they are to have. Never has this been heard of in the Church. My father was a laborer, and the fear of having many children never entered my parents' minds, because they trusted in Providence. [I am amazed] that yesterday in the Council it should have been said that there was doubt whether a correct stand had been taken hitherto on the principles governing marriage. Does this not mean that the inerrancy of the Church will be called into question? Or was not the Holy Spirit with His Church in past centuries to illuminate minds on this point of doctrine?" 6 (emphasis mine)

    The preceding statements were made during the Second Vatican Council by Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, Cardinal Ratzinger's predecessor as head of the Holy Office (now Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) and the eleventh in a family of twelve children. Several years prior, Pope Pius XII expressed similar sentiments that large families were representative of:

    "the physical and moral health of a Christian people; a living faith in God and trust in His Providence; the fruitful and joyful holiness of Catholic marriage." 7

    How did that which was a few short decades ago considered by someone who knew Catholic Faith as well as anyone, to be "never ... heard of in the Church" become so ubiquitous and, according to some, even obligatory? When did childbirth, a miraculous treasure naturally flowing from marriage, become the result of an optional act of generosity performed by those practicing "responsible parenthood"?

    As with similar occurrences, the effective divorce of periodic abstinence from its necessary grave conditions is primarily one of education and emphasis. Part of the problem is in the language employed when discussing such matters. When used at all, the terms describing the moral requirements have changed from "grave" and "serious" to "good" and "just". Even Humanae Vitae, after using the term "grave motives" switches to "plausible reasons". The final step is to reverse the terminology to teach that the motives, rather than being necessarily grave should instead be "not selfish". When flipped in such a manner, the door opens even wider to what could justify avoidance of birth. Certainly reasons considered "not selfish" far outnumber those considered "grave", and could reasonably include such justifications as wanting each child to have more parental attention, not wanting to have more children than could reasonably be placed into private education, or even wanting the children to grow up in a better neighborhood or time period.

    Such changes in terminology assist in the efforts to render the obligations and limitations meaningless by making the exception of periodic abstinence the new rule. The concept of "responsible parenthood" has come to describe the moral obligation to regulate and limit births. Among Humanae Vitae's "Pastoral Directives" is the following exhortation entitled "Mastery of Self" which seems to lend more support to the avoidance of conception than contraception:

    "The honest practice of regulation of birth demands first of all that husband and wife acquire and possess solid convictions concerning the true values of life and of the family, and that they tend towards securing perfect self-mastery. To dominate instinct by means of one's reason and free will undoubtedly requires ascetical practices, so that the affective manifestations of conjugal life may observe the correct order, in particular with regard to the observance of periodic continence. Yet this discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value. It demands continual effort yet, thanks to its beneficent influence, husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace, and facilitates the solution of other problems; it fosters attention for one's partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love; and deepens their sense of responsibility. By its means, parents acquire the capacity of having a deeper and more efficacious influence in the education of their offspring: little children and youths grow up with a just appraisal of human values, and in the serene and harmonious development of their spiritual and sensitive faculties." 8

    According to the school of thought which has followed, Natural Family Planning is a positive good which "builds healthy marriages" and "promotes a strong mutual bond." As such, people like Jan see no reason why a good and moral Catholic could ever not practice NFP, whether they want a couple children or a dozen.

    Natural Family Planning, we are constantly told, also allow humans to "cooperate with and become interpreters of God's creative plan" rather than denigrate ourselves to the presumably ignoble prospect of serving as "chutes by which God delivers babies to earth." The implication is that relying on Providence or choosing not to limit and space your children is at best irresponsible, at worst barbaric and animalistic. In fact, such concepts are more than implied. In his recent Latin Mass article, John Galvin recounts how:

    Fr. Torraco, who answers morality questions on EWTN's website, claims that those who decline to use NFP and "leave procreation in the hands of God" are practicing a "deficient," "deceptive" and "less than human" approach." Father Hogan, who answers NFP questions, tells Catholics that "it is better to have 2 or 3 children you can educate all the way than 7 or 8 that you can only take so far." 9

    Fr. Toracco has since started advocating some sort of pseudo-spiritual mysticism based on the "charting" involved with NFP (see The Remnant — 10/15/02). Elsewhere on the EWTN site, Fr. Horgan, in an article claiming to address NFP's "serious motives" of all places, tells of how:

    "Pastors routinely try to persuade engaged couples to use NFP after they are married. Most engaged couples, however, will tell the priest that they want to avoid a pregnancy, at least for awhile. Pastors are very pleased if they are able to convince the couple to use NFP." 10

    Among the significant volume of various resources, Web sites, pastoral aids and information available relating to Natural Family Planning, the necessary "grave" and "serious" conditions are either ignored or downplayed while the promotion of the seemingly limitless benefits of periodic abstinence are repeatedly emphasized, as aptly demonstrated by George Sim Johnston:

    "The best kept secret in the Church today is Natural Family Planning. .. .NFP is like going on a honeymoon every month, which is why even non-Catholics use it and don't understand why more couples aren't in on it. ... the rewards of NFP easily outweigh the sacrifices. Ask any couple who uses it." 11

    Perhaps such messages and tactics are directed toward the vast majority of Catholic couples currently utilizing artificial birth control methods. Perhaps presenting Natural Family Planning as rewarding, exciting, fulfilling and effective will entice those with a nagging conscience about their use of contraceptives. In such a time where contraception is practiced by so many Catholics in America, it may seem to be a strange lack of perspective to focus on the motivations and moral dispositions of those relative few who have avoided the plague of artificial birth control. But, as in all aspects of Catholic Faith and morals, people need to hear the Truth, not merely that which is palatable to their modern sensibilities. Such efforts to present this practice separated from the grave responsibilities associated with it, essentially teaching an exception as the de facto rule for Christian marriages, only serves to transform Natural Family Planning into what many both inside and outside the Church already consider it to be: a "Catholic" form of birth control.

    FOOTNOTES:
    1 Pope Pius XII, Allocutions to midwives, October 29, 1951, and to the Associations of the large families, November 26, 1951
    2 Pope Paul VI, Humane Vitae 10 (July 25, 1968)
    3 J. Galvin, "Humanae Vitae: Heroic, Deficient - Or Both?" The Latin Mass (Winter 2002)
    4 J. & J. Campbell, "Connections" USCCB NFP Forum, Vol. 13, Nos. 3 & 4 (Summer/Fall 2002)
    5 Pope Paul VI, Humane Vitae 16 (July 25, 1968)
    6 Fr. R. M. Wiltgen, "The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber" TAN Books and Publishers (1967)
    7 Pope Pius XII, "Address to the Directors of the Associations for Large Families of Rome and Italy" (January 20, 1958)
    8 Pope Paul VI, Humane Vitae 21 (July 25, 1968)
    9 J. Galvin, " John Galvin Responds Re: Comments by Janet Smith and Ronald McArthur" The Latin Mass (Winter 2002)
    10 Fr. Richard Hogan, "Natural Family Planning - Serious Motives" EWTN Web Site
    11 G. Sim Johnston "Natural Family Planning" Catholic Issues and Facts
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