I used our long weekend to get started on a massive spring clean-out. It wouldn't be massive except that last year we had actual winter, followed by 100-degree temps for what felt like forever, and somehow we seemed to have skipped over spring altogether. So I had more to do this year.
But enough chitchat--let's get down to business.
During a break in my cleaning efforts, I happened to see a blog post that made me a tad bit frustrated (to be fair, both the post itself, and some of the comments). As you know, I've been writing about the HHS mandate and about Church teaching against contraception both here and in the comment boxes at other blogs for much of the past two weeks. In the course of those conversations I have found myself repeating, over and over, two important points:
1. The Church does not hate women.
2. The Church does not teach that Catholic mothers are required to have every child they can physically bear or drop dead trying; nor does the Church teach that families must be willing to be destitute to the point of starvation before they can grudgingly be permitted to use NFP.
Now, the Church's documents pertaining to NFP and natural means of child spacing or birth regulation do use words like "serious" or "just" reasons for parents to have recourse to these methods. But the Church's documents also use words about "responsible parenthood" and "prudence." Simcha Fisher's great post from last year went through how difficult, if not impossible, it is for anyone outside of a marriage to determine the proper balance between the call to be generous and loving in welcoming children to one's family and generous and loving in seeking, for a time, to avoid adding to one's family; in fact, there is no definitive "list" from the Church which couples must consult in order to determine if their particular reasons for using NFP somehow pass the "not-selfish/not-using-NFP-with-a-contraceptive-mentality" test that some Catholics seem to think must exist somewhere.
Which is why it was so annoying to read Dr. Marshall's blog post insisting that, in fact, there is a list, and that anybody not following it is probably sinning by using NFP selfishly and in a contraceptive attitude:
Um, no. The actual quote from Pope Pius XII is as follows:The Church allows married couples to practice periodic continence only for serious reasons. These reasons were explicitly listed by Pope Pius XII in his “Address to the Italian Catholic Union of Midwives" from 1951.NFP or periodic continence can only lawfully be practiced without sin for serious reasons or "just causes," which he lists as “medical, eugenic, economic, and social” reasons. [Emphasis added--E.M.]
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 tile full their sensuality, can only be the result of a false appreciation of life and of motives foreign to sound ethical principles.Three things about this passage strike me at once: first, the Holy Father's words are translated--one presumes accurately--as "Serious motives, such as those which not rarely arise..." The use of "such as" would seem to indicate that Pope Pius XII was not intending to write down a definitive list of every reason for NFP that would constitute a grave reason, but rather to give examples within the context of a broader address. The second thing is that the passage as quoted comes from a larger section of the address in which His Holiness was speaking to the question of whether or not it would be possible for a couple to be married while intending and acting upon a committment to avoiding, for a very long time or even for the whole marriage, the possibility of pregnancy, even by moral means; in other words, this specific passage does not speak just to the question of the morality of periodic abstinence as that is ordinarily understood. And the third thing that leaps to the eye is that the Holy Father said that these "serious motives" are not rare--that is, they are things "...which not rarely arise..." So it would seem to me to be opposed to charity to assume that most, or even many, NFP users are using NFP from motives of selfishness or with a contraceptive mentality.
But there is a fourth thing, which is important: these are words from a papal address, and while not unimportant, they do not automatically constitute some sort of for-the-ages infallible list of the only types of situations in which a couple might justly use NFP. To determine whether or not such a list exists, we would have to consult official Church teachings and documents--and any examination of those indicates that no such list exists on any official level. Couples are merely reminded that reasons to space or regulate births must be serious or just, as opposed, of course, to frivolous or unjust. That frivolous or unjust reasons to use NFP might be possible is by no means an indication that the vast majority of NFP users are guilty of these sorts of reasons--in fact, it is deeply unjust, and even possibly a case of rash judgment, to make such a claim. But in any case, the list of four rather large categories prefaced by the words "such as" in a papal address are not some sort of official catalog of the only possible circumstances in which the use of NFP might be just. To make such a mistake is akin to thinking that the same pope's remarks on the subject of modest dressing in 1940 to Italian schoolteachers constituted a "for the ages" rule that all Catholic women thenceforth had to follow under pain of sin--which, alas, is the sort of mistake some Catholics are all too prone to make.
As I said, the post annoyed me, as did some of the comments in it, because this is exactly the sort of thing those outside the Church will read and, without understanding the questions of authoritative teaching and so on, will declare, "See! I told you the Church is anti-woman. This Dr. Marshall fellow grudgingly admits that a woman on chemotherapy might be excused from 'paying the marriage debt,' but only because the child might be hurt by the drugs, not because the woman is--HELLO!--suffering from cancer and struggling with illness and pain and the possibility of death. And then in the comments--oh, boy, did you see that man who thinks that women who don't have every child they can physically bear are probably sinning? Forget what those people who talk about NFP say. Clearly the attitude on the ground is that women either have big families or they might as well go to Hell using the Pill as go to Hell using NFP..."
Which is not anywhere close to what the Church actually teaches.
As I wrote in a recent comment over at that blog, a recent Get Religion article pointed out that the same percent of Catholics in America accepts Church teaching against contraception as attends Mass every Sunday: about 22%. (And thanks to the reader who sent me that link!) Of that 22%, what percent is made up of married couples who not only agree with Church teaching but use NFP? Is it really the case that so large a percent of that percent of a percent are "abusing" NFP (in the words of a commenter at Dr. Marshall's blog) that this is a great tragedy and one of the most important moral issues the Church faces in America (or even the world) today?
Man, I wish I lived in the sort of bubble where I could believe that, even for a second--that one of the, if not the, biggest marriage-related crises in the Church here in America today involves validly married couples chastely practicing NFP but doing so for perhaps less than the most serious of reasons, such that it's crucial to write scolding blog posts all about how selfish it is to think that your family's need for a physically or mentally healthy mother and actual floors instead of dirt ones are good enough reasons to postpone the birth of your next child. Meanwhile, the Obama administration pushes forward with its attempt to force Catholics to pay for birth control, sterilization, and abortifacient coverage as "health care" and the 78% of Catholics who don't show up for Mass and/or dissent on contraception are convinced that the Church just hates women and/or thinks all married Catholic women have a moral duty to bear as many children as they physically can. Or, as I said above, drop dead trying.
It must be nice to live in the bubble.