Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Serious NFP Use and the Seriously Big Family

I must admit that something in the wording of this post by Greg Popcak bothered me. I think it is the last line about the "Catholic proof-texters" who think they are "popier than the pope." This is in reference to those who have taken seriously the apparently faulty Humanae Vitae translation that states that NFP (Natural Family Planning) can only by used be couples for "grave" reasons. The translation is faulty, according the author of the link Dr. Popcak presented. In case this is new to you, Humanae Vitae is the Catholic Church document that articulated to the modern world the long time Catholic Church's teaching on life issues, in particular NFP, contraception and abortion.

In the link, the author, Angela Bonilla, basically argues, after extensive research and study, that the term "grave" should be downgraded to "serious," and she gives more emphasis to the idea of "responsible parenting." The basic teaching in Humanae Vitae is that couples can legitimately use NFP, and only NFP, to space births for "grave" or "serious" reasons, depending on your translation/interpretation.

Ms. Bonilla begins her paper in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review with the following: "A friend recently called with questions about childbirth, timidly confessing that she was pregnant with her fourth baby in six years while her youngest was eight months old. “It was unexpected,” she said quietly, “But I can’t tell my best friend that we were trying to avoid having another baby. She says the Church teaches that NFP can only be used when having another child would cause some kind of disaster in the family.”

My first comment is to Dr. Popcak. I have never met parents of a large Catholic family, and I know a few, that feel their call to parenting a large family is solely in response to a theological argument, or makes them "popier than the pope." My experience is that families are just prayerfully living out their married vocations while embracing their fertility and attempting to be good stewards. Sure, many larger families refer to the Humanae Vitae passage about only using NFP for "grave" or "serious" reasons, but the real motivation may be that couples just prayerfully feel led to remain open to life for much of their fertile years. And what's wrong with that? Raising a large family can bring an abundance of grace to a marriage, to the parents as individuals, to the children, and to the family as a whole. The challenges of large family living are not necessarily to be avoided simply because there are challenges. If a couple feels called to be open to life and God blesses them with children, then the challenges are to be embraced. I call it holiness boot camp.

Second, practically speaking, it doesn't seem to make much of a difference whether we refer to reasons for using NFP as grave or serious. Referring to the correct term is not the starting point. Prayer is the starting point. If a couple is prayerfully considering using NFP and feels led to, the Holy Spirit, through their conscience, will help determine for them what is legitimate, be the reason "grave" or "serious." I imagine the very people who are concerned about the licit use of NFP are the faithful people who do use prayer as their starting point, whether they have two or twelve children.

Third, I am troubled by some who suggest that NFP use is the de facto status quo of married life. Even the more liberal interpretation by Ms. Bonilla suggests that the use of NFP for serious reasons is legitimate, suggesting that openness to life is the status quo and that couples may use NFP. Further, NFP is not always so simple to use when spacing births while breastfeeding, and couples cannot be considered irresponsible when found expecting another one of God's little "surprises." It is a fact that some couples find themselves struggling to become pregnant at all, while others seem to conceive extremely easily. Fecundity does not equal irresponsibility or imprudence.

Fourth, I think couples, and those who counsel them, must be very careful when discerning what it means to be responsible and prudent and generous regarding the rearing of children. Materially, socially, spiritually, and intellectually, what does it mean to be responsible? Again, this will be something only a couple can decide prayerfully together. It may be that a couple, because of their apostolate, are called to use NFP for much of their marriage and will have only a small family or widely spaced children. However, we cannot look at the benchmark of the average American family and decide that we're just "not ready" for another baby yet. The truth is, the American culture encourages people to be selfish, materialistic, and way too attached to comforts. If anything, these "attachments" are where the laser beam should be focused, not on faithful families who happen to have many children and are learning to live a less comfortable existence.

Last, the illustration of what is assumed to be the outcome of poor judgement and a lack of NFP use that begins Ms. Bonilla's argument is false. Most couples are timid about announcing an addition to their larger than average family as they are often faced with some degree of ridicule or prejudice, so no wonder the woman who came to her was "timid." Also, the lady in the illustration stated that her pregnancy was "unexpected" and they were "trying to avoid having another baby." This demonstrates the fact that NFP does not always work easily or the same while breastfeeding, as noted above (she has an 8 month old, so I'm assuming she was breastfeeding). Then, the fact that the lady did not want to tell her judgemental friend that she was using NFP, obviously did not get in the way of the couple actually using it, so this negates the idea of there being some kind of peer pressure to have a big family as an actual influence. Most importantly, though, it doesn't make sense to argue against another's incorrect interpretation of Humanae Vitae by forming an argument against the original translation. Nowhere does the "flawed" Pauline translation suggest that NFP is only legitimately used "when having another child would cause some kind of disaster in the family." If this is the argument Ms. Bonilla is contesting, then show the flaws in the argument, but please don't illustrate with a family that God may be calling to add to their numbers, challenges and burdens and all.

Peace, Hope