In a contraceptive culture it is little wonder that natural family planning is often in the Catholic spotlight. Perhaps it is also little wonder that we accidentally slip into using the secular world’s terms or attitudes when discussing it. It is well established to anybody willing to hear that NFP is a licit practice. In fact, it is not merely an acceptable but second rate choice made by second rate Catholics but can and should be undertaken in such a spirit as to be equally receptive to God’s will, a loving exercise of our role in the creation of new life with responsibility and generosity. However, the question of when and why to avoid pregnancy in particular circumstances can easily become confusing and some of the language surrounding the discussion adds to this.
First, there is a tendency to speak of family planning decisions in the long term. We consider the overall number of children in a family, or how many years there are between children. Yet, part of the beauty and challenge of natural fertility awareness is that it deals only in the now. Every cycle, in some sense every day, one must reexamine the family situation and the possibility of adding another child. While depending on the reasons for using NFP to avoid pregnancy one may have some idea of how long this will be necessary the question is only ever “what about this child, today?” not “how many children do we want in total?” or “what is our five year plan?”.
Second, and quite naturally, we tend to simplify the discussion of reasons to avoid pregnancy. While the Church remains vague, giving only broad categories for consideration and the requirement our reasons be serious and just, as human beings we want something more concrete and so we list off example after example. While this is certainly of some use, a good starting place perhaps, it is important to remember that each marriage and each person in a family is unique. What may be serious and just for one may not be for another. Furthermore, when we have not experienced certain hardships ourselves we may not consider them, or may underrate their significance. So by necessity our examples often tend towards the most undeniable and extreme cases so that they are certainly within the acceptable guidelines. Yet for the couple sincerely seeking God’s will it can seem like nobody struggles to determine the justice of a given situation. It seems as if everyone else is dealing in black and white while we sift through a sea of gray. Medical diagnoses, financial issues, and psychological problems are rarely binary. The scenarios are not a or b but rather a spectrum. Where on the range of depression, for example, does it become a legitimate reason to space births? No buzzer sounds: you are now depressed enough. How much money is enough money? Anybody who has managed a family budget knows that expenses are only so predictable. And many medical conditions do not come with a crystal ball. A doctor can tell you what may happen, what is likely to happen even, what the statistics say, but what will happen is almost never certain, thank God. How much strain is a marriage under and how much more can it take? How much strain will any one pregnancy and child be? In all such deliberations we must err on the side of hope not fear, of generosity not selfishness, confident in the belief that in the end God will provide. But the fact remains, nobody receives a memo saying, you are now allowed to avoid conception. It is important to acknowledge that, while NFP can certainly be used licitly, the decision is often complex, ever changing, and difficult, requiring much prayer and the advice of priests and other experts. This should not be discouraging, but a sign that a couple is striving to be as generous and brave as they can be and to make not the easy decision but the right one.
Thirdly, the terminology and tone taken regarding NFP decisions often fails to reflect the true nature of proper fertility management. Instead it leaves the impression that NFP is merely “Catholic birth control.” Consider: We acknowledge the generosity and bravery of the family that chooses to take every baby as it comes without resorting to any child spacing methods. We also mourn with the couple who experience infertility, unable to have the children they desperately want. However, when we speak of the families in between, those who must limit the number of children they have, there is a shift. We tend to discuss their reasons as excuses: legitimate excuses not to have children. As if they were sort of hoping for an out and luckily they found one. It is very difficult not to talk about it this way, in fact I have fallen into it within this essay. Perhaps it is impossible to completely avoid since we do need words like “just causes” and “grave reason.” Somehow though, it is important not to leave the impression that NFP is about having a good enough excuse to get out of conceiving. This is unjust to the couples practicing it and also leaves the impression we are not as excited about new life as we purport to be. (Lucky them, they got a doctor’s note and can skip out.) It is natural to sometimes feel a sense of relief at not being pregnant. Pregnancy can be exhausting and trying. Some women also feel a sense of relief at the onset of menopause; their work is done. Openness to life does indeed take great sacrifice and strength. Yet a couple practicing NFP in the proper spirit are also exhibiting this same sacrifice and strength. While there is the sense of peace when one feels certainty that a decision is in keeping with God’s will, there can still be great sadness at the decision to avoid pregnancy for a time, or for the remainder of a marriage. Instead of discussing NFP decisions as reasons, or excuses, we might more properly consider them crosses. A couple must sacrifice the child they might conceive and in a sense sacrifice their fertility for a time. They aren’t “off the hook” but rather are being asked to be obedient to God as surely as the couple who conceive another child.
As it becomes more and more evident that I will be among the number of women who cannot have all the children they want without becoming incapable of caring for all the children they have, I am becoming more and more aware of this. There was a time when I too subconsciously ranked marriages by their fruitfulness and unthinkingly spoke of NFP as some sort of cop out. What an injustice. How dismissive of the difficulty of their decisions and the pain of sacrifices they may be asked to make. If and when the time comes that I must forgo what is left of my fertility, as I put away the baby clothes for the last time and stow the crib, it will be with great sadness. I pray that I can do so with the same generosity and obedience that I tried to show in welcoming each of my children, but it will be hard. To all other couples doing their very best to wade through the twisting ways of faithful fertility management, you are not second rate. You too are generous. You too are brave.