Thursday, September 20, 2012

NFP and sacrificial love

Before I get to my blog post of the day, let me just say that now Blogger is forcing me to use their stupid new posting template, and I hate it hate it hate it hate it, and I'm seriously considering moving all three of my Blogger blogs either to Wordpress or to Typepad.  Would like to hear from those who have made such moves as to which is my better option.

Okay.  On to the post itself.

The Badger Catholic linked today to this post at Fructus Ventris, which I found interesting:
And then, there is the third group - possibly the smallest minority among married Christians in the present time. Those who believe that it is occasionally moral and ethical to exert some control or judgement over their use of their fertility, but who also decline to use methods that either temporarily or permanently destroy fertility or block its transmission. They learn to identify the fertile days of the cycle, and make choices about intimacy based on this knowledge. This group can often end up trying to explain themselves to both the QF types and the "birth control is just responsible stewardship" types. To one, they are explaining that abstinence is not the same as contraception - to the other they are explaining that just because they are using periodic (or total) abstinence for avoiding or delaying pregnancy, they are not contracepting. It is a tough place to be in. But NFP is not just "Catholic birth control". It respects the way God created the body by not destroying fertility, and it respects the unitive aspect of marital love by not putting a physical or chemical barrier between the spouses. And its very difficulty is such that I think it is difficult to use for frivolous reasons. Contraception has become so easy that it becomes possible to think of pregnancy as the exception, rather than the rule, when considering the consequences of sexual relations! 
 Read the whole post, which is well worth the read, here.

I really liked this writer's look at the "between a rock and a hard place" space NFP Catholics, or Catholics using any natural and morally acceptable method of birth spacing or pregnancy avoidance for that matter, find themselves.  I especially like her statement that it's really hard to use NFP for frivolous reasons--which is what I want to talk about today.

We often hear from those who have discerned that God is not asking them, personally, to abstain from marital relations or limit their family size temporarily or even indefinitely that NFP is "selfish," or that "most people" use NFP for "selfish" reasons.  As someone who has used NFP for about fourteen years now due to a serious medical issue, I have to say in all honesty that I've never met anyone who is using NFP for selfish reasons.  Yes, anecdotes aren't evidence, but when I've met fellow NFP Catholics the reasons they give for using NFP tend to involve the following:

1. Serious physical or mental health reasons involving at least one spouse;
2. Serious (as in potentially devastating) financial reasons;
3. Prudent temporary financial reasons (that is, a job change that has left the couple temporarily "between" health insurance, etc.);
4. Prudent concern for other pressing responsibilities, including the care of the children already born, the care of one or more special needs children, the care of elderly or ill parents or other extended family members, etc., such that seeking to add another child right at this moment would impact the ability to meet these other obligations.

These are the reasons I've heard most often; some of you may have other serious reasons or have heard of other serious reasons for using NFP--my list isn't meant at all to be definitive.  But the one thing I can honestly say I've never heard is this: "Oh, we use NFP because we only want two kids so we can have a huge house and a wealthy lifestyle and all the perks of limiting our family size..."

As the blogger I quoted above points out, NFP doesn't really lend itself well to that sort of thinking; I'm not saying it never happens, just that it's probably very rare.  Why?  Because NFP itself is ordered toward self-denial: and not selfish, unilateral self-denial, but the mutual decision of both spouses to accept the demands and the cross of periodic abstinence for the good of each other, the family, and their vocation in general.  The loving and mutual sacrifice of some occasions where the marital embrace might otherwise be enjoyed simply does not go well with a mindset that would seek to limit family size only for some purely selfish or materialistic reason--especially when that sacrifice is repeated month after month, year after year, and must sometimes be accepted as necessary for the whole of the remainder of the woman's fertile years.

In fact, while it is certainly true that one spouse may act selfishly in denying the marital embrace at times, or one spouse may act selfishly in demanding the marital embrace at other times, it is difficult for both spouses to act selfishly when they have made a careful, prayerful, and prudent decision to use NFP or another natural means for a time--and if they have any doubts or are not "on the same page" about the decision, asking for spiritual direction is always a good option.  I think most of us would agree that it is selfish for a spouse either to withhold or to demand the marital embrace unreasonably--but the key word there is "unreasonably."  Just as it is not at all selfish or sinful (on the contrary!) for spouses to abstain immediately following the birth of a child, so is it not selfish or sinful to abstain for any other sufficient and good reason.

When couples are committed to acting out of mutual love and respect for each other in all things, it is hard for them to remain selfish.  NFP is not an "enabler" of selfishness any more than fasting is an "enabler" of picky eating; the things we do which are sacrificial by their very nature will lead us closer to God, if we are properly disposed to let them do so.


Anon said...

In recent years I have had as acquaintances a number of young Catholic couples preparing for marriage, or recently married. I have not experienced: "Lets wait to have kids so we can get a boat!" or "Let's limit our children presuming that we can only send two to Harvard!"

What I have noted is some of these couples feel pressured to use NFP for reasons that new married couples should not be burdened with. It is difficult to re-assure a young man who calls distraught on the phone thinking he is being selfish on his honeymoon because his new bride read fertility on the chart earlier that morning. They both want children, but they are convinced that it would be 'imprudent' to do so at this time.

There are certainly reasons to abstain from the marriage act, and I am sure a large number of faithful Catholics do not abstain for selfish reasons. I do believe however that a number of couples are convinced into believing that they are required to practice NFP when in fact they are not.

An old article related to the topic:

vera said...

I started with blogger but they did not have the name I wanted, so I quickly moved to wordpress, and I thank my lucky stars. I HATE blogger too! The comment system sucks. It's eaten endless number of comments of mine. I detest the unreadable captchas.

Wordpress is wonderful most of the time, and has great support. I can only recommend it.

Red Cardigan said...

Vera, thanks for the recommendation!

Anon, I agree with you that people shouldn't feel pressured to use NFP for no reason! Sadly, I think we pressure young people to go into serious debt for college, and then tell them not to start families when together they owe forty or fifty thousand dollars or more for their educations. We need to rethink that!

Rebecca in ID said...

This is a picky point I suppose but it seems to me the waters are muddied when the phrase "use NFP" is used as synonymous with "practice periodic continence" anon, IMO every married couple is asked by the Church to use NFP but not necessarily to practice periodic continence.

Anon said...

Besides the situation I already noted (couples feeling pressured to use NFP), I have also witnessed another serious situation worth being aware of.

The couple has been practicing NFP and has a growing family. There may have been one or two occasions where the couple, while open to God's will, was not expecting the child given to their family. They were "doing everything right" but are under the impression that "they have made a mistake" with their NFP practices.

Like all families, the crosses get heavier from time to time. Combine a particularly heavy cross with the nagging thought that they are not capable of always "doing NFP right" -- and you will see some poor couples start to consider contraception as their only option. These couples are faithful Catholics struggling to do the right thing, but still feeling backed into a corner.

Most will immediately jump to the conclusion that the couple just needs better NFP education. Maybe in some cases, but I believe the issue is deeper than this. This is not about someone forgetting to chart one morning, or a "selfish" husband convincing his wife to "cheat" that chart one rainy evening.

М said...

Okay, well, I have a question and a possible answer, and am now curious how you'd answer it, if you get a second and care to..

I, for background purposes, am a practicing Catholic, and I do adhere to their teaching on birth control.. my husband, however, is agnostic, we'll call it, and doesn't care either way, though is happy to let me do as I do at this stage in our loves (I've mentioned that he's on his own when --if!-- he decides that no birth control is no longer something he agree with, per say.. anyway, that's a different topic).

So, my question/issue.. how can Catholics, who do not practice birth control because it's something that God is in control of --and rightly so, say that they only trust His judgement when very little is at stake? That is, they trust that He'll give children if He deems it the right time, and practice nothing, including NFP, so long as finances/health/healthcare/etc are in order... but! if they're not, and a life threatening medical issue could arise, or care of other family members would be impossible with a new baby, or financial ruin would ensure, etc, then they decide to step in and take control of their fertility, via sacrifice/abstinence. How does that fit with Church teaching? Or just generic trusting in God?

I will add that I'm somewhat pathetically under-versed in the specifics of teaching that allow for NFP/strategic abstinence, so maybe this is covered there, but I just seem to be failing to see the distinction. Is the sacrifice what legitimizes it? That seems the only possible explanation, if a weak one..

To be clear, this is not an attack, and I tried to word it accordingly.. this is just me asking someone (you) who seems quite adept at explaining such positions even to those of an entirely different mind for your understanding of this particular aspect of Church teaching/Catholic living.. I hope I haven't offended, and thanks for your blog+great writing, I really do enjoy your posts, they're always right on-target!

Red Cardigan said...

M, here's my best shot at answering your question:

Catholics don't shun birth control because child-spacing is something only God is in control of. Some Catholics are able (physically, financially, etc.) to embrace the call of a large family without recourse to natural means of fertility regulation; others have used NFP (etc.) to work within God's will for their families. (And family size is not always a clue, by the way: I know large families who have used NFP to space births or postpone temporarily, and small families who have never used it but have few children due to secondary infertility or some similar issue).

Rather, Catholics shun birth control because artificial birth control gets in the way of the spouses' total gift of self to other. A wife isn't giving the totality of herself if she is using artificial means to "shut off" her reproductive system; a husband isn't giving the totality of himself if he is using a physical barrier to thwart the natural purpose of the marriage act, and so on.

The point is that NFP respects nature, the bodies of the spouses, and the integrity of their physical relationship in a way that artificial birth control can't and doesn't.

Some spouses prayerfully trust God by not using NFP or any morally licit natural means to regulate fertility at all; other spouses prayerfully trust God by discerning that they have a serious reason to postpone the birth of another baby, or even, in the most serious reasons, to avoid adding to their family for the foreseeable future. The truth is that sometimes these are the same people--that is, that a family which has joyfully welcomed children without NFP may at some point in the marriage come to a place where they must take seriously the reality that another baby isn't possible (often because the mother's or father's physical health is a serious concern).

I hope this is helpful!

М said...

Thanks for the answer! It's definitely something I hadn't known, I had just assumed it was a trusting God thing... Actually, as I was writing it I was trying to come up with a reason for how leaving all baby-having matters in God's hands was any different than taking an entirely passive role in one's life in general, with which I disagree entirely. So your explanation makes good sense, thanks!