No petty virtues

Some time ago, an online discussion of NFP took an interesting turn.  I remember it especially because I got off a pretty good zinger (and that’s what we Catholic bloggers do to advance the kingdom of God:  we zing people).

The Other Guy’s argument went like this:  Sure, sure, the Church permits NFP to space out pregnancies in serious circumstances.  Because we are a stiff-necked people, she even turns her head while we stretch the definition of “serious.”  But really, if we truly want to follow God, shouldn’t we learn to let go?  Isn’t the lesson of faith that God will provide for our needs, whether emotional, physical, spiritual, or even financial?  NFP, more often than not, is a crutch which interferes with our radical dependence on God.  He is calling us to loosen up that death grip of control and abandon ourselves more generously to his will.

The answer, of course, is that he is calling some people to give up control.  To others, the call is entirely different:  take charge, be responsible, grow up.  Some people are already quite good at living with abandonment, thank you very much, and what God wants from them is a little self-control.  It’s not even necessarily about having or not having a baby:  it’s about taking responsibility for your life in general.

Different people, different situations, different lessons to be learned.

And I was gratified when several people said, “Wow, thanks, you’re right.  I never thought of it that way before.”  You’re welcome, and may God bless you and some day make you as insightful as I am.

I had it set in my head that it was a battle of prudence vs. generosity — that some people were called to one, and some to the other.  And secretly, I thought that we overly-abandoned types had chosen the better part, even in our weakness.  I admired people with prudence in much the same way as I admired Superman for flying:  nice trick, and I wish I could do it — but who really wants to be Superman?  Is this a guy who could fall in love?  Look how clean he is, and how cold.

image source

Prudence, like temperance, is such a dreary virtue.   Justice and fortitude are about getting stuff done — but prudence and temperance are all about holding back, clamping down, cutting back, saying no. It’s all about the negative: wait, stop, think, don’t do it, hold your horses, cut it out.

Or . . . not.   In this season of our life, it seems that another baby is a joy to be postponed for a while yet.  With growing astonishment, I’m discovering that there is no tension between prudence and generosity.  Prudence is a kind of generosity. Of course it is!  Everything that comes from God overflows.  What is the promised land?  Not a static place, a spot on the map, but a state of motion, of spilling over — a land flowing with milk and honey.  And if virtuous behavior imitates God, then how could some virtues be more petty than others?

You can do it wrong.  You can exercise self-control with a mean heart, with a bitterness of restraint, or with fear.  But that’s not true prudence, any more than it’s true fortitude to sit dozing in a car that someone else is steering through the storm.  With prudence comes an openness of heart, that same sensation of welling up, of cracking open and flowing over that often comes (but doesn’t always hang around!) when we immerse ourselves in the will of God.  I did not know how much warmth and love were at the heart of this misunderstood virtue.

I know it’s not all about the feeling.  I know (or at least I’m learning) the dangers of depending on those occasional spiritual gifts of religious emotion, discussed so lucidly by Jen Fulwiler.  On the other hand, when we decided to be more prudent, I wasn’t expecting any emotion at all.  I was expecting something utterly dry and mechanical, something contrary to my nature, something foreign to my relationship with my husband.

Instead?  It’s like one of those dreams where you’re wandering around on the top floor of your house, looking and looking for something — and what is this?  A whole other room.  You open the door, and step inside — and there you find what you were looking for.

There are no petty virtues.  Everything that comes from God is a form of love.  Why do I need to learn this so many times?

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  • Mouse

    Beautiful. And I haven’t even had my coffee yet. Well done.

  • PonyPam

    And sometimes, we’re prudent, and God belly-laughs. :)

    As usual, Simcha, I agree with you. But, while the person who sleeps soundly while someone else is driving through the snow storm may not be practicing fortitude, she is practicing trust. And the person who IS driving through the snow storm may just think it’s a joy ride anyway. (Have I ever told you about our first Christmas trip after we got married, which involved sub-sub-zero weather, and me, waking up at about 10 p.m. to the sight of the edge of the hood of our car, and nothing else but white? Sean? Loved it.)

    • Karen

      Oh yeah. We thought we were being prudent when we decided to start trying for our third child (“trying” in our case means flip flopping our NFP method, ya know) when our second turned 2. You know, to give the baby time to be a baby. We got pregnant when our second was 13 months old. Best laid plans, and all that.

  • Tiffany

    Very well written, Sim.

    I always fear I’m doing it (generosity, prudence, fortitude, whatever…) wrong. Yesterday I was wishing I could get some kind of progress report – like the kids get from school – to see if I’m “on track”. I think that would be helpful.

    • Renee

      Tiffany, that’s a great idea!

      Simcha, have you read Pieper on Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude? I’m in the middle of Prudence at the minute and am struck by how for him this is the virtue most linked to truth, but also to love.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      Oh, Tiffany, I always assume that what I consider “doing it right” is like when the three-year-old says, “Look, I cleaned my room all by myself!” And you say “good job” because you love her, not because the room is actually clean in any way!

      • Tara Meghan

        Oh my gosh, Simcha. I just love you. Seriously.

      • Jeni

        what a great analogy. needed that today.

      • http://www.thewinedarksea.com/weblog.php MelanieB

        Oh wow does that analogy hit home. Just yesterday I was praising my 4 four year old who was so proud of cleaning up her play kitchen. And it was such a mess.

        I know I am such a mess and that my littlest efforts are probably no better than hers.

      • Tonia

        Amen. Just, yes, amen.

  • http://stmonicasbridge.wordpress.com Kristen

    I really needed to read this this morning. Thank you so much. As always, you hit the nail on the head!

  • Susan

    Prudence is a great virtue because it gets rid of the “one size fits all” family planning manifesto that comes from the planners and the non-planners alike. Because you have to size up your reality and decide how to act. I came from a large family and it was great, it truly was, but I didn’t want to relive it as an adult. There I said it. I wanted to spend more time with the kids than my mom did with us, especially when we were teens. Why did God steer me this way? Is my experience at all relevant? Why do some people want large families and others don’t? Should we all want large families? What if you don’t really like caring for babies? I mean, who are these people that cry when the baby turns 4?

    Anyway, I’m thinking out loud here. All I know is that the desire to have another baby gradually waned and the desire to enjoy my older children, to move onto the next phase of life, grew and grew in my heart.

    • http://themoleshollow.blogspot.com/ Becca

      I just thought it should be acknowledged that was a gutsy thing to admit – even semi-anonymously on a beer-loving Catholic’s blog. I think a lot of children from large families feel pressure to have large families themselves, or else it is seen as a criticism of their upbringing. But that’s not necessarily the case!

      I look at my oldest daughter – type A to the extreme – and I think, she would either rock it and make me look like a deadbeat in comparison, or the stress would turn her into a drunk. Either way, it won’t be my call. I try to stress to my kids that having a family isn’t about hitting a certain number, it’s about working out God’s plan for your salvation.

    • http://janalymarie.blogspot.com Beadgirl

      Thank you for this; sometimes I feel like there is something wrong with me because I don’t think motherhood is the best thing ever and I don’t want 10 kids. I adore the Beadboys, but being a mom (and a stay-at-home one at that) has been the hardest thing I have ever done, and has taken a real toll on me. This has been exacerbated by Beadboy1′s significant special needs, with the result that I won’t be having any more children (at least, I don’t intend to . . .). Sometimes I do think how nice it would be to have another (especially if I could get someone else to deal with the sleep issues and the diaper changes), but I’m at my mothering limit. Some women can handle more, God bless them. Some can only handle fewer. One size does not fit all.

      • Denise

        “but being a mom (and a stay-at-home one at that) has been the hardest thing I have ever done, and has taken a real toll on me. This has been exacerbated by Beadboy1′s significant special needs”

        I’m with you! I feel just the same way, for at least partially the same reasons (special needs kid), and thank you for expressing it here.

        • Anon today

          From my personal perspective (and not a “this is what all of you should be doing” perspective), it’s easy to forget that NFP leaves our hearts open to God where ABC doesn’t. This is another facet of its beauty.

          We also have a special needs child in our home. She takes a LOT of patience and work and time and everything else. She has caused our whole family to grow in some beautiful ways. But, she will always be a baby and a very difficult one, at that.

          We assumed that would be it for children for us, because how could we fit One More Child in this situation.

          Enter God, Who started whispering in our hearts about another child. In fear and trust, we said yes. And could never imagine our lives complete without the new lovely souls who is with us now.

          And while this is a wonderful thing, the back story is that it took a lot of spiritual growth to get to this point. While we were being prudent, we were still listening. Which, I think, is what it is all about.

          • Tracy C.

            “While we were being prudent, we were still listening. Which, I think, is what it is all about”

            Well said!

            I am pregnant with number 7 after having said “Done!” way back at 4. Done meaning tubes cut and burned. FF several years, an adoption, a surgery, a difficult c-sec- and well, here we are again.

            I have never said “Done!” aloud since the cutting of the tubes, but I do attempt to whisper it in my heart sometimes. Like very recently while retching my guts out in the toilet.

            Listening, though, listening. I gotta keep doing that.

  • Tara Meghan

    Yes!! I am also relatively new to the idea of prudence and temperance not being awfully dry and dusty things, with which I have had little to do. But you are so right; they are just flaming, luminescent…and “generous” is exactly the right word.

  • http://www.conversiondiary.com/ Jennifer (Conversion Diary)

    Fantastic post. AND with a link to me! It doesn’t get any better than that.

  • http://remnantofremnant.blogspot.com priest’s wife

    Thanks for this- sometimes it seems that I can’t get it right- I have about 3 or 4 kids too much for pagans (meaning non-hardcore believers) and 3 or 4 kids too little for those same hardcore types. We have 4 kids.

    It is very personal…and yes, God is leading us…that is what is important, right?

  • Trinity

    You wrote:

    “I remember it especially because I got off a pretty good zinger (and that’s what we Catholic bloggers do to advance the kingdom of God: we zing people).”

    I think discussion is good but it also has to be charitable too. I don’t think “zinging” people is very charitable. NFP is a hot topic and emotional retaliation is not only uncharitable according to the Catechism but it’s counterproductive to the mission we have been given by the Gospels.

    Let’s not zing people but instead encourage them!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      Yeah, that was just a joke – making fun of myself for my uncharitable tendencies.

  • Elisa

    Thanks, Simcha, great post. It helped me to see that there is grace wherever God put us. I’m 8 months pregnant right now with what will probably be our last child due to increasingly difficult pregnancies, and it’s been hard for me to fathom that if God calls us to use NFP to avoid future pregnancies, that we could still be generous and open to His will. When I read your post I realized that I probably am one of those people who needs to grow in prudence and perseverance, so that my desire to not be so sick for 9 months at a time is maybe God’s way of calling me to learns these virtues and not just a cop-out of being too attached to comfort on my part.

  • KyCat

    Beautiful! Thank you so much.

  • A Doubter

    And no doubt, even if we’d had NFP in the fourteenth century, we still would have gotten St. Catherine of Siena.

    • http://redcardigan.blogspot.com/ Erin Manning

      People love to bring up St. Catherine in these discussions. Here’s the thing, though: Yes, St. Catherine was 24th of 25 children. But before Catherine and her twin (number 23, died shortly after birth) could be born, eleven of the previous 22 children had died in infancy.

      Granted, that was life in the Middle Ages. But if those eleven children *had* survived infancy, been nursed at least two years each, and had caused at least some nursing amenorrhea each, it’s entirely possible that Catherine’s mother could have had as much as twenty years of normal infertility in addition to whatever years she did have.

      Would St. Catherine, born when her mother was forty, have ever been born in that case? Are our modern medical practices which prevent a lot of infant mortality thwarting God’s will by not allowing as many women to have twenty-five or thirty children by age forty as happened in the 1300s? I certainly hope no one would say so.

      • A Doubter

        Sigh. Whether the children lived or died was God’s call. Whether you’re born in the medically primitive fourteenth century or the medically sophisticated twenty-first century is God’s call. Whether you use NFP to limit God’s creative opportunities is your call. And it’s a call we should be *terrified* to make. Can we make it sometimes? Sure, but beware: “All should be persuaded that human life and the task of transmitting it are not realities bound up with this world alone. Hence they cannot be measured or perceived only in terms of it, but always have a bearing on the eternal destiny of men.” Gaudium et Spes 51. If you really cannot handle twenty-two children–or two children, for that matter–then God will not send them to you. And if pregnancy will kill you, then consider the example of St. Gianna Molla. Was it really prudent not to have the hysterectomy? Was it really prudent to leave her husband a widower? Was it really prudent to leave four children without a mother rather than three with one? Moreover, though prudence is a great virtue, two things out to be remembered: there are plenty of ways to develop and practice it without limiting God’s creative potential; and “the greatest of these is love,” not prudence. 1 Corinth. 13:13.

        • http://redcardigan.blogspot.com/ Erin Manning

          But, Doubter, prudence is in the service of love–as, indeed, are all the virtues.

          Without going into all the medical details of St. Gianna Molla’s case, I would charitably point out that heroic self-sacrifice *after* conception has occurred is indeed an act of great and noble love. The same cannot be said of ignoring medical realities and seeking conception in the face of a potentially serious situation, when one has the means and ability to use NFP or another approved abstinence-based method. To seek conception in such a case is not always trusting God; sometimes it is testing Him.

          And when you write, “If you really cannot handle twenty-two children–or two children, for that matter–then God will not send them to you.” you are doing what the Church does not: ignoring the fact that God has created the biological laws of human reproduction and set them into motion in ways that we are not only capable of understanding, but which have, except in rare cases of infertility, relatively predictable results. A deep respect for His laws of science and nature is not contrary to faith in His Will; but, again, it is indeed possible to act imprudently and irresponsibly in regard to parenthood (as in all other areas of life); else why would the Church even address, as she most certainly does, the idea of responsible parenthood?

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

            Thank you, Erin, for this excellent response.

          • Elisa

            What is that word that describes the difference between God’s will in a vacuum, and God’s will within the context of the choices we’ve already made? Something about God’s perfect will and God’s (something) will?

            The way I see it, God calls us to cooperate in his plan for our family with our entire being: with our body, our intellect, and our will. So he could be calling us to seek pregnancy or not at any given time. But He gives us free will, and every child is a blessing, so even if God had been calling a couple to postpone pregnancy and learn prudence, the moment a new life is conceived that becomes God’s will.

            Kind of like how God may call a person to be a priest or a nun, but they’re still free to make their own choice, and if they get married instead, the minute they take those vows (assuming there were no impediments to marriage) God is now calling them to marriage. It may not have been His original plan for them but it is His plan now and He will certainly give them the grace to carry it out faithfully.

            Does anyone know what that word is I’m looking for to describe God’s will?

          • Nina

            His Permissive Will? :)

          • Tracy C.

            Elisa, this is how I see things too.

          • A Doubter

            If I am ignoring the enlightenment imperative to bend nature to our will, I am by no means the first. “Si vous saviez celles qui seront en enfer, pour n’avoir pas donné au monde les enfants qu’elles devaient lu donner!” But no doubt these words can be explained away as well.

            You must realize that by insisting on the importance and relevance of our knowledge of the biological principles that govern human reproduction, you are essentially condemning the marital practice of the first eighteen centuries’ worth of faithful Catholic couples. Sure, we know about ova and spermatazoa and have all these nifty technologies–natural and unnatural–at our disposal. So we can practice “responsible” parenthood. But then most of our forebears in the faith must have been irresponsible!

            By the way, I am not arguing that we have an obligation to “seek conception.” My theological opinion–and it is only an opinion, though one I believe to be firmly rooted in authentic Catholic tradition–is that married couples must remain open to life in perpetuity, in each and every marital act, but that they may, for the famous “grave reasons,” limit their performance of the marital act to times when they believe that conception will not take place. As a rule, married couples need neither seek nor avoid conception–they should do what God designed them to do, and leave the outcomes in his hands. To some God gives none, to some a few, and to some many, without any human intervention at all. This was, to my knowledge, the only way Catholics did things for about eighteen-hundred years.

            But then I should ask: do you believe that Catholic couples have a moral *obligation* to use NFP or another licit method of “spacing” births or “planning” their families? Is abandonment to Providence in this matter sinful or immoral, now that we have such a sophisticated knowledge of human reproduction, and now that human life is so “complex” and “modern”?

          • gussie

            Doubter raises a good question, I am wondering about this too. In some circumstances is there an obligation to use NFP, and if so, only in grave situations? Or also when God is calling a couple to greater prudence? How about the family on welfare? Genuinely curious here, not trying to start something. I do not know a lot about this stuff, but I am familiar with the opposing viewpoints. Ultimately of course we can’t speak to anyone’s individual situation but that’s what makes this so hard to understand. Some basic clear guidelines for hypothetical situations would be helpful!

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

            “Some basic clear guidelines for hypothetical situations would be helpful!”

            Gussie, I don’t think they actually would be helpful. I know what you mean, but there’s a reason the Church doesn’t get really specific about what constitutes a legitimate reason to avoid pregnancy (and, by hypothetical extension, an obligation to avoid). I believe it would be just about impossible for someone other than the couple themselves, and possibly their confessor, to discern God’s will — and, as in the case of whether it’s legitimate to avoid, I believe the hypothetical obligation to avoid would vary so much from couple to couple that any guidelines would necessarily be vague.

            I don’t usually do this, but I would actually like to respectfully request that we don’t discuss whether, for instance, welfare recipients should have children. I’m not going to ban it, but I’ve never, ever seen a charitable discussion about this topic. If you’re not that poor, then how could it be helpful for you to decide whether someone else ought to be having children? And if you are that poor, it’s going to make you feel like crap to have other people discussing you that way, even if they don’t even know you’re reading. I know it’s an interesting question, but it gets really ugly really fast, every single time.

            I keep returning to this basic idea: that NFP (and being good to your spouse during extended abstinence) teaches sympathy — – AND, when a couple learns sympathy for each other, they often seem to learn sympathy for other couples. I have noticed that many (by no means all) couples who frown on NFP tend to have a harsh attitude toward other Catholics in general. Cause or effect, I’m not sure — but there is nothing like putting yourself in your spouse’s shoes to encourage your ability to see yourself in all KINDS of people’s shoes. So, there’s yet another way that *singalong* prudence is a kind of generosity.

            Oh, and another rule, Doubty McScholar: English only, please. Come on.

          • gussie

            Oh, you’re right about the welfare question, not good for discussion. It came to my mind because I know of a family who was judged harshly for accepting public assistance while continuing to have children.

            Here’s what’s so hard about this topic, though, that it’s so vague and subjective, and priests don’t even seem to have much consensus. This is a great conversation here, though, and the most helpful comments are about personal situations. I find it difficult to explain Church teaching on this. So much of it is relative, subjective. And you look up Catholic thinkers and find such different takes on it. I see what you’re saying about why the Church doesn’t get specific, but sometimes I wonder if it’s also because it’s all so new, and there will be more illumination to come on this.

          • gussie

            Oh and by more illumination I don’t mean specifics spelled out, but maybe clarity on the general topic so we could get past this point where many good people feel bad about using NFP, and some really believe that NFP is usually wrong. There seems to be a lot of confusion.

          • Jumping in Late to the Convo

            The popes have already spoken to this question in Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno (sorry for the Latin, I’m too lazy to go look up the English)– in essence they say poor families have an unmitigated right to their children and gov’t's and individuals have an obligation in charity to support those families, thereby emphasizing the un-qualified blessing that children always are and the boon other people’s kids are to society.

          • gussie

            Thank you! I am glad to have an answer and a reference source for this question.

          • The Jerk
          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

            Oh, The Jerk, if I weren’t already married, I’d marry you.

        • SQ

          Doubter, you are confused about using one’s intellect and will to do God’s will.

          God gave us a will and an intellect to determine what is prudent. He made it so that His creative power requires some kind of act from us, and most of the time, consent. There are times when God creates in an act of violence. Does this mean God is imprudent?

          We fall into this pride where we assume that someone else is “not doing God’s will” if they are not doing what WE are doing. You state, “If you really cannot handle twenty-two children–or two children, for that matter–then God will not send them to you.” This sounds like presumption to me. God gave us our intellect and will for a reason. They have been darkened and weakened by the Fall. It is up to us individually, in a growing relationship with God, to properly make these decisions for ourselves.

          I have had 6 c-sections. I have made sure to have a physician who shares my values deliver my last 3 babies so that I will not be told the worldly lie of “no more,” unnecessarily. I pray that God will guide this physician to give me good advice. Is it prudence to take the advice of a God-fearing doctor, or should I just trust God?

          What about the woman with 4 children who bleeds 10 out of 28 days per cycle with horrible cramping. The Church, of course, allows for the medical solution. (Hysterectomy) It is both licit and prudent. Would you dare to judge her decision?

          • Denise

            I’ve never, ever understood the confounding opinions about NFP.

            Humanae Vitae says (emphasis ** mine):

            “Others ask on the same point whether it is not reasonable in so many cases to use artificial birth control if by so doing the harmony and peace of a family are better served and more suitable conditions are provided for the education of children already born. To this question We must give a clear reply. **The Church is the first to praise and commend the application of human intelligence to an activity in which a rational creature such as man is so closely associated with his Creator. But she affirms that this must be done within the limits of the order of reality established by God.**

            If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, **thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained.**

            Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different. **In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature.** In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for **reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable**. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love.”

            Later on, we see:

            “It is supremely desirable, and this was also the mind of Pius XII, that medical science should by the study of natural rhythms succeed in determining a sufficiently secure basis for the chaste limitation of offspring.”

            I appreciate differences of opinion, but prefer some researchable references to back them up. Am I missing something? Is this superseded somewhere? Where are there listed the supposed “grave” reasons for limiting birth?

            I’ve always found it interesting that as medical science radically improved the infant mortality rate, we grew in understanding of natural methods of birth control: first the rhythm method and then fertility indicators. Could it be the hand of God, who knows our needs even before we know them ourselves?

          • Denise

            Incidentally, I’m not dismissing the Gaudium et Spes reference, but right above that miniscule little quote is this:

            “Thus they will fulfil their task with human and Christian responsibility, and, with docile reverence toward God, will make decisions by common counsel and effort. **Let them thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. For this accounting they need to reckon with both the material and the spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in life. Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself. The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God.** But in their manner of acting, spouses should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel. That divine law reveals and protects the integral meaning of conjugal love, and impels it toward a truly human fulfillment. Thus, trusting in divine Providence and refining the spirit of sacrifice,married Christians glorify the Creator and strive toward fulfillment in Christ when with a generous human and Christian sense of responsibility they acquit themselves of the duty to procreate. Among the couples who fulfil their God-given task in this way, those merit special mention who with a gallant heart and with wise and common deliberation, undertake to bring up suitably even a relatively large family.”

            Note that even with a “relatively large family”, the Church adds “with wise and common deliberation”.

            Sorry about the long posts, but it’s something that cuts to the core of God’s vision for individual families….

          • A Doubter

            These documents cannot be quoted as if they ended the conversation. Nor can they be quoted as if they represented the totality of Catholic teaching. As the present pope has stressed, these and other documents of the conciliar and postconciliar era must be read *in continuity* with the immemorial tradition of the Church. That tradition is much greater than Gaudium et Spes and Humanae Vitae, and indeed, those two documents (and others of their ilk) spring from and are manifestations of that much greater tradition.

            What these latter documents make plain is that NFP/rhythm/making exclusive use of the infertile period/what-have-you is licit. No serious Catholic denies this. The real question is *what attitude* to take vis-à-vis NFP, etc. Is it morally required? Is it morally praiseworthy? Is it morally neutral? Is it morally dubious but tolerated for whatever reason? Should its usage be universal, fairly widespread, common, rare? What is the authentic Christian attitude on this matter? Only by reference to the entirety of the Church’s tradition can we hope to answer this question correctly. Relying exclusively on conciliar and postconciliar documents is as theologically faulty as it is historically myopic.

            As for “grave reasons,” you’ll find a fine, accessible treatment in Fr. Brian Harrison’s “Is Natural Family Planning a Heresy?” http://www.rtforum.org/lt/lt103.html Short answer: NO. But Fr. Harrison also reasonably observes: “Indeed, quite frankly, I think we really need now from the Magisterium some less vague and more specific guidelines as to what actually constitutes a ‘just reason.’” (“Just reason” is another term of art the Magisterium has used in this sphere; the term “grave reason,” however, has not been repudiated.)

          • Denise

            “These documents cannot be quoted as if they ended the conversation. Nor can they be quoted as if they represented the totality of Catholic teaching.”

            I’m sorry, A Doubter, if this is what you thought I was doing. To be blunt, it is exactly what I thought YOU were doing, with those short quotes, French lines, and apparent disdain for those faithful Catholics practicing their faith according to Church teaching.

            If that was not your intention, then I’m afraid that you have not conveyed the purpose of your comments very well, and judging by others’ responses I don’t think I am the only one with this impression. It’s absolutely good to raise questions. It’s good to make people think about WHY they might be practicing prudence, and is it really prudence, and are you really listening to God or having trust issues?

            But it is not “encouraging others in the faith” when you sow confusion or appear to be representing something that is contrary to Church teaching, or are seeming to invent sinful behavior where there may not be any. I’m afraid these are exactly what your previous comments appeared to be doing.

            It is impossible to present the fullness of my understanding of the Church’s teaching in a blog (and not even my blog!), but my quotes were in direct response to your quotes. As you clearly state above (now! finally!) the Church very, very obviously endorses NFP. The Church supports couples in using NFP to regulate the size of their family and the spacing of their children. The Church in no way (that I can see) presents this as Jesus says Moses allowed divorce within the Jewish community, because “they are a stiff-necked people”: as something reluctantly offered because otherwise we’d contracept our little hearts out.

            The Church also unilaterally proclaims the beauty of human life. The Church encourages us to deeply embrace the unbelievably precious gift God offers of participating as co-creators in another unique, beautiful human soul. The Church affirms that the marital embrace, open to life, is the ultimate of union, stated by John Paul II as representative of the unitive love of the Most Holy Trinity. No, we are not supposed to use NFP to “contracept” because having another child would mean we can no longer take our vacations to Maui or something.

            The Church acknowledges that though we must have the ideal always set before us, we are broken, sinful and weak. So we have Confession and we have NFP – which is not forever, which is one month at a time, which actually offers the opportunity to increase the fullness of unitive love between husband and wife. And the Church (as opposed to some individuals) does not set up “grave” reasons in the form of a set of checklists that we have to surmount before we can licitly practice NFP – because as Simcha and others have already pointed out, YOUR just reasons may not be MY just reasons. We are to measure things within our hearts by the standards God sets for us, according to the strengths and weaknesses we each have as individuals. That’s why the Church so wisely only gives basic guidelines.

            Do couples sometimes use NFP for the wrong reasons? I’ve no doubt, though as someone else pointed out NFP is a difficult-enough proposition that I think that number is pretty darn small. If you are united with God and Church so much that you practice loving abstinence, I think God is already obviously working in your life.

            Perhaps the real question is, are we using our knowledge of the human body in love – in love of God and in love of each other, a love reflective of the Divine. “If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.” Etc.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

            Denise, thanks for this thorough and charitable response. I’m sure it will not satisfy Doubter, but I hope it will reassure other people who might be disturbed by what is really a pseudo controversy.

          • A Doubter

            Strange what passes for charity in an internet combox. In any event, by way of an apology (in the old-fashioned sense), let me point out the following.

            I am accused of employing “short quotes” and “French lines.” Yes, I made use of two quotations, one of which was in French, though I should have thought the technologically savvy apostles of NFP would have been aware of the technology known as Google Translate. The French means simply, “If you knew those who are in hell for not having given the world the children they had to give!” and was spoken by St. Jean-Marie Vianney.

            I am also accused of dragging my feet (“now! finally!”) in recognition of the Church’s teaching on the liceity of using the sterile period. Actually, if you go back and read my second comment, that of 10:33 pm, 12/1/10, you will see that I acknowledged the doctrine quite openly (“Can we make [the call to use NFP, etc.] sometimes? Sure…”)

            Moreover, I have posed several substantive questions that no one has given any substantive answers to. What of the marital practice of the first eighteen centuries of Catholic history? All just “irresponsible” parenthood? Is NFP, etc., morally *required*, ever? Could abandonment to Providence on this issue ever be sinful? What exactly are the dimensions of the authentic Christian attitude toward NFP? And how do some of the statements that we read in G&S and HV square with the immemorial Catholic tradition? How are we to follow the Pope’s vision of a “hermeneutic of continuity” in these matters?

            Finally, as for grave/just reasons, and how “personal” they are, you don’t really believe that yourselves, or at least Denise doesn’t. Else how could she write, “No, we are not supposed to use NFP to ‘contracept’ because having another child would mean we can no longer take our vacations to Maui or something. “? This means Denise agrees that the desire to visit a particular vacation spot is not enough of a reason to practice NFP. Denise has just conceded, implicitly, that the limits to the legitimate use of NFP are *not* so purely subjective, *not* so purely personal that they are incapable of some level of general formulation. Otherwise, how could she make a blanket statement about vacations to Maui? After all, vacations to Maui may well be very important to the mental health of various persons, and who are we to make that call for them?

            I’m not here to discourage anyone or anything, except perhaps self-congratulatory complacency. I thought that if a prominent Catholic blogress posted on something like NFP, then not only cheerleading but also serious discussion was welcome. Kudos to Erin Manning for a couple of reasonable points, as well as to Gussie for recognizing the importance of the question whether NFP is ever morally required.

          • Denise

            A Doubter,

            I guess I prefer the (apparently?) new-fangled way of apologizing:

            I thought that my reply to you was respectful and polite, if perhaps blunt. But if I crossed a line and you found it uncharitable, then I am truly sorry. Even when I vehemently disagree with a person’s opinion I try to keep in mind always that he or she is a child of God, and precious in His sight.

            I would ask, though, in order to keep everything honest: if you would like to enumerate my uncharitable tendencies so I can avoid them in the future, that you use the construction and content of your own comments, in their entirety, as examples to go by.

            To answer the points that Simcha has not already addressed:

            You are absolutely correct that you mentioned the liceity of using NFP in your second comment. But to put the entire thing in context, you surrounded this very short acknowledgement with a plethora of “buts”. By reading your entire comment, it is not at all clear to me that you acknowledged the Church’s full teaching on NFP with that statement. Your opinions about it appear much, much more negative than the Church itself presents NFP, with the sense that many more obstacles must be overcome before reluctantly resorting to NFP, and that people who use NFP are to be regarded more dimly than those who do not practice it. I’m sorry if this seems unreasonable, but I disagree that you made an open and clear recognition of Church teaching on the matter before your response to me specifically. And such a view of NFP – bolstered by a saint’s quotes (which I did Google translate, btw) and reference to G et S, neither of which was provided with context – can seriously undermine and confuse individuals who are conscientiously practicing NFP according Church guidelines.

            As to my use of the Maui vacation – you are right to question my use of a specific example. I assumed that everyone would see it as I personally do: as a sign of choosing a selfish pleasure (something that is a tremendous luxury as opposed to a true need) over God and His will. Thus using it as hyperbole.

            To be clearer: my intention was to point out that the gift – and responsibility – of participating as a co-creator with God is so tremendous that we should be very careful not to use frivolous, deeply selfish or idolatrous reasons to abstain from having children.

            I suppose the reason an expensive vacation holds a place in that list (for me personally) is that of the dozen or so couples that I know using NFP to currently abstain from having children, not a single one would take such a trip in exchange for having another child. And we live in a place with long, cold, dark winters where such a trip in Dec/Jan would be a psychological relief. On the other hand, of two couples I know well and many others by acquaintance, all are openly artificially contracepting themselves to a limit of zero to two children, specifically because otherwise they could not maintain the standard of living to which they have become accustomed – which include “mandatory” annual trips to Maui.

            But while my personal view is perhaps valid to a majority (though I have no absolute proof of this, only an impression based on the just reasons other individuals have presented here), you are correct that a specific reference has no place in the discussion, any more than do specific references to when people “must” use NFP. So I apologize again, and particularly to anyone reading this who may have felt judged by me when I used this particular example!

            Note: I still respectfully disagree with your personal presentation of NFP. Unless I really am misunderstanding your comments from the first one to the last, I do not think it is completely in line with either current Church teaching or the historical perspective of the Church. As someone else wisely pointed out, abstinence has historically been recognized as a valid response to God’s call in a married couple’s lives. Sts. Isadore and Maria of the 11th century come to mind.

            In a refreshing change, I completely agree with you about Erin and gussie’s comments, and am thankful for the many, many others providing me rich food for thought and a personal growth in compassion.

          • gussie

            thanks for the quotes, I am too lazy to look them up and it helps a lot to have them here.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

            1. It was annoying that you quoted from a papal encyclical, but then,when Denise did the same thing (with much more informative context), you chastised her.

            2. I know about Google translator. I use another language besides English if (a) the translation is obvious (b) I’m trying to impress someone.

            3. John Vianney also said it’s a mortal sin for your child to sleep in bed for you. He advised women to let their children cry, rather than change their diapers in public; and he said it’s a mortal sin to nurse in public. Saints are sometimes wrong. I suspect that JV spoke in hyperbole, besides. I would like some context for that particular remark. For all I know, he was referring to abortion, or coitus interruptus, or who knows what.

            4. You said:

            “What of the marital practice of the first eighteen centuries of Catholic history? All just “irresponsible” parenthood? ”

            Maybe I’m missing the point entirely here, but who is saying they’re irresponsible? If they didn’t know about NFP, they couldn’t use NFP.

            If someone from the 12th century dies of a heart attack, was his physician irresponsible for not using defibrillators on him? Of course not. Might a modern doctor be irresponsible for not using them? Maybe, if it was medically indicated. It’s not a good analogy, though, because heart ailments are easier to discern than the will of God.

            5. I hadn’t thought of myself as a prominent Catholic blogress, although some parts of me definitely do stick out more than others.

            6. “Is NFP, etc., morally *required*, ever? Could abandonment to Providence on this issue ever be sinful?”

            I don’t know about this. I’m not sure why you are offended that no one has answered to your satisfaction, though. I requested that people not discuss it on my blog because, as I stated, it gets very unpleasant very fast. I’m sorry if that annoys you, but it is my blog.

            “What exactly are the dimensions of the authentic Christian attitude toward NFP?”

            I don’t know what you mean by “dimensions of attitude.” I think that’s exactly what we’ve been talking about: various dimensions of authentic Christian attitudes. They vary according to very personal and individual circumstances. That’s why it doesn’t get “exact” — because they vary so much. I don’t see what is lacking in the way people have been discussing their approaches to discerning having more children.

            “And how do some of the statements that we read in G&S and HV square with the immemorial Catholic tradition? How are we to follow the Pope’s vision of a “hermeneutic of continuity” in these matters?”

            I admit that I never understood what is meant by a hermeneutic of continuity. I don’t quite understand what you mean by Catholic tradition. Are G et Spes and HV a break with tradition??? Not that I’ve heard of. From what I’ve gleaned, they draw out specific truths from tradition, which is what Catholic teaching DOES. It develops and gets more specific over time.

          • Becky

            The word “grave reason” hasn’t necessarily been officially repudiated, but it was NEVER a correct and accurate translation, in the way that “just reason” is. It doesn’t need to be repudiated, we should use the most correct terminology without being coerced into doing so.

          • gussie

            One of my friends was using a well-known NFP group’s materials and felt uncomfortable, maybe judged, by what she said was constant reiteration of the grave/serious reason thing (this is second-hand, I don’t know the wording). As far as understanding the confusion, I think this might be a source among NFP users. If a respected NFP “authority” is vague enough or wrong enough to imply that NFP is only for the direst of circumstances when the church documents say otherwise, those who are decisive, confident and schooled in these matters might be able to dismiss the excessive warnings, but others might be made to feel that however well-grounded the reasons, they aren’t serious enough.

            Perhaps this was only my friend’s perception, but she was carefully discerning, and had serious reasons. The NFP materials made her feel bad about it all instead of supporting her. The priests she talked with weren’t that knowledgeable or helpful.

            I don’t want to mention the name of this group because, again, this is second-hand. But if others who use these popular materials feel the same way or adapt their views to the materials, this may explain why many have confused ideas about NFP.

        • Mariana

          Whether I get married or not is my call, too. Being married or not will determine whether I have any children, too. When I choose to have sex with my husband will determine when I have children — NFP or no. Medicine being primitive was also the result of human choices — why did we not buckle down and prioritize medical science over theological learning in the middle ages?

          God gave us free will knowing that not all our choices will be optimal because the perfection of the will is Love and love cannot exist without the will. Generosity is a choice, as is prudence. Love and understanding enable us to make the best choices we can — and God’s will will shine through that.

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  • http://redcardigan.blogspot.com/ Erin Manning

    Simcha, I love this.

    Our small family is the result of two preeclampsia pregnancies, mom’s high blood pressure, and (when I gave up and accepted medicine) the pregnancy category “D” medicine that works the best. For years I thought that *when* by the sheer force of redheaded willpower I licked the HBP problem we would of course have another baby. It’s been rather hard to think otherwise (and I still dream about surprises and new baby-safe hbp drugs that will work for me and stuff like that).

    But there is a great and beautiful generosity about prudence, too. I’ve also learned a lot about humility–those small Catholic families I sometimes falsely judged? Oh, wow, emergency hysterectomy here, cancer there, multiple miscarriages there, low fertility issues over here, and this couple with the one perfect child who looks like Mom’s mini-me? Adopted, ’cause mom’s infertile.

    The job of all of us Catholic families, large or small, is to hear God’s call and respond in love. So long as we’re doing that, the actual number of children is always in God’s hands.

    • http://remnantofremnant.blogspot.com priest’s wife

      YES! Some of us with small families (4 kids over here) have serious medical issues

      • TankerMom

        When I had my first child barely a year after getting married, I thought “wow, I’m good at this!” and we bought a Suburban. Eight years and several miscarriages later I finally had number 2. Now she’s 5 and I’ts time for me to quit wishing and be more grateful. Maybe my call to prudence is to worry less about what everyone else thinks about my Catholic bona fides and be thankful. I’d never given much thought to NFP, but I love your insight!

  • Katharine

    I really enjoyed your post. I think you have inspired me to try and begin a little personal refresher course on the virtues.

    I am not a terribly prudent person but have become more so in the last 17 years. You know, all the joyous, silly behavior and feelings that I associated with being imprudent and “carefree” have remained and in some ways become magnified since I grew more prudent. Almost more importantly my internal joy and capacity to live in the here and now have greatly increased. I don’t lose entire days or years anymore and when I go to confession I know what I’ve been doing and where I have been struggling much more clearly than I used to. The old fogginess wasn’t for lack of conscience either it was because of the general lack of decisiveness and forethought in many areas of my life.

  • Regina

    There’s an assumption behind this NFP argument: that if God had his druthers, babies would be pouring out of the skies into the arms of elated parents everywhere. Isn’t it possible that God would want someone NOT to conceive? He doesn’t want unmarried couples to have babies (though he can turn that to good when it happens). He doesn’t want infertile couples to conceive by immoral means (ditto that). He apparently doesn’t want me to conceive a seventh time. But He does want me to drop the control-freak inside me. Maybe stop all this charting and symptom watching and vitamin taking and hand wringing? Maybe try rearing the children I already have? He has enlightened me to this thought about myself: I’ve used pregnancy, post-partum, tiny baby, toddler, etc. as an excuse to NOT buckle down and rear these guys, become more of an expert in homeschooling, finish fixing the things in our home that need fixing, cut my husband loose a little to accomplish a few things in his career, etc. It’s so easy for me to say “I have a new baby here! No time!” God is asking me to enter a new phase in my life. I don’t want to go there. My three year old’s babyhood has slipped through my fingers like a mist. I guess what I’m saying is, the control freaks aren’t all on the Avoidance side of the NFP aisle.

    • http://www.zealforyourhouseconsumesme.com thereserita

      Regina, Thx for your honesty. Your comment is very much in line with this great post. Seems like we can be the most dedicated Catholic wives/mothers on the planet and still have to confront the reality of letting go of the veils we tend to hide behind & move with the will of God. Jessica Powers wrote a lovely poem in which she says that the point of life is to learn to “Listen, God is singing” thru whatever is happening in our lives today. Same thing as “Abandonment to Divine Providence” by deCaussade but takes alot less time to read :-)

  • gussie

    Great post and some great comments too. Just turned on a dusty old light bulb in my mind. I haven’t given much thought to prudence and I think that’s one of my problems. Feeling like life is spinning out of control sometimes might indicate something other than trust in God (not that I thought I was any good at that either). These are some helpful insights for me, thanks.

    A good priest once said something about NFP not just being about procreation but also about self-control, and I think this is along the lines of what he was thinking. It wasn’t really clear to me how and why in a spiritual way (I understand of course the basic idea of self-control and its connection with NFP) until I just read your thoughts on the virtue of prudence here.

  • http://halfadozenproductions.blogspot.com/ Maurisa

    Wow, loved this.

  • sibyl

    Boy was this post timely. And it sounds like Regina and I are living almost the same life — only, my imprudence in regard to babies has been, “I’m pregnant — I’m nursing — I’ve got a new baby here — look at how special I am!” yeah, not too pretty. So now with a new regime in which I don’t conceive at the drop of a hat (or, you know, however that happens) it is more than time to think about prudence and my current task at hand.

    Thanks for this.

  • http://www.etsy.com/shop/AxisMundiDesigns Geomama

    “The answer, of course, is that he is calling some people to give up control.” That would be me – I’ve always been rich in prudence but stingy in love. Five children later, I’m figuring out the love thing

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  • http://ronconte.wordpress.com ronconte

    The reasons required for Catholic spouses to use NFP morally need not be serious or grave, but only proportionate. As long as the good consequences of using NFP outweigh any bad consequences, the circumstances are good. Any act with three good fonts of morality: intention, moral object, and circumstances, is a morally licit act.

  • Blake Helgoth

    St. Thomas Aquinas says that sometimes the prudent thing is to take a warm bath and drink a glass of wine! It is the way between (the media via) the extremes.

  • http://www.lifeofvirtue.com Derek

    This is a great post! As I devote myself to spreading the message of virtuous living in all its facets, I enjoyed reading that prudence is related to generosity and our life of stewardship (bodily resources as well as financial). If anyone is interested, blog posts and other reflections on virtuous living are available at http://www.lifeofvirtue.com.

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  • http://lettersto.us MightyMighty
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  • http://lettersto.us MightyMighty

    The last post did not come up looking like I wanted. I love this post! We are in the phase of coming out of a long period of needing to be prudent to deal with serious school debt and get into a house, to eagerly waiting for a positive

    Link on my site to yours:

    http://lettersto.us/archives/108

  • Nina

    This post and the comments, as well, had me nodding and smiling a lot. Wow, what brilliant and thoughtful readers you have, Simcha. I am so grateful to be reminded again what blessed company I am in as a Catholic. I feel like I am not in this alone.

    But it isn’t always simple, is it? Because we all are trying to please God and be docile, humble, and grow in a spirit of poverty, etc., He allows us to experience our own weaknesses, limitations, and ineptitude in judging what’s “right” from time to time. In the very process of trying to do what’s “right” we are allowed to make major mistakes and be shown we don’t really know that much. And that the ways of God are so above us, and we are so insufficient. And that’s okay. We need to just live in the present moment, and keep trudging on.

    I have experienced all of these questions and thoughts and struggles, about my married and reproductive life. It never gets easier and it probably won’t until I’m clearly past menopause. Surprisingly, I am one of those women who always feels nervous and “apologetic” for all of conceptions and mega-large family, as if I have been irresponsible. And I am noticing an increase in blogs, books, etc. of grown children raised in

  • Maggie Dee

    Maybe I’m just too much of a newbie Catholic, but I don’t understand the angst regarding using NFP from some people in the church. Am I missing something here or doesn’t the church OK it’s use? Then while all the angst? One quote I remember from RCIA is try not be holier than the Pope. If he is OK with NFP then so am I.

    Why, do people do this to each other? I mean judge each other’s holiness based on family size? I just don’t get it. I mean when do you explain your private/personal life to a fellow parishioner? During the peace be with you? Coffee and donuts afterwards in the parish hall?

    Universal church doesn’t mean all the same. It means all encompassing.

    • Susan

      I hear you sister loud and clear. I guess what always confused me was the “call” to have another child. What if you stop receiving the “calls”? At some point, every mother has a youngest child.

    • Regina

      I think the angst lies in this: if you’re going to abstain, and take on the problems that abstinence can bring into your life–cuz let’s face it, it can be almost easier to just have another baby than to deal with the drama of periodic abstinence–you’ve got to give it some thought, ask yourself why you’re doing this, be on the same page with one another, and bring a TON of maturity and humor and prayer into the picture. Sure, that’s an angst filled project! It’s not so simple as “Hey it’s not a good time for a baby right now, let’s just abstain, OK?” At least not in this house.

    • Blake Helgoth

      Maggie,

      The thing is, there are a lot of Catholics out there that use NFP in the wrong way. There are many a priest that think all couples are obligated to use NFP unless they make several hundred thousand dollars a year and are both living saints! I do read in scripture (Genesis, in particular) that God commanded couples to procreate. I never had read anywhere where He said to stop. We have four living children and have had six miscarriages. Once we reached number four we began to receive comments, even from daily Mass folk about the number of children. So, yes the Church permits NFP but one is never obligated to use it. The angst is because we feel that it is being crammed down our throat in ways that were never intended when the Church allowed its use. If we are honest, it is super easy to be selfish in this area, especially in modern day America. While medical reasons may be a reason not to conceive (although it is very difficult to find an OB that one can trust in this area) that does not mean one is not then being asked to look into adoption. If ever there was a time that the world needed more children, it is now.

      • http://www.thewinedarksea.com/weblog.php MelanieB

        Anytime this kind of discussion of NFP comes upin a comment box, it seems someone must make this claim: “there are a lot of Catholics out there that use NFP in the wrong way.” I always wonder: How do you know that? What’s the evidence? How *could* you know because really isn’t the judgment about whether a particular couple’s decision to postpone pregnancy for a time a prudential decision whose morality can only be judged by that couple and their confessor(s)? Frankly, NFP is a difficult discipline. I have a hard time imagining anyone taking it up without their at least imagining they have serious reasons.

        And then this: “There are many a priest that think all couples are obligated to use NFP unless they make several hundred thousand dollars a year and are both living saints!” Really? Many? Have you personally met many priests who think this way? Where are they? Who are they? Frankly, I’m tempted to treat them as figments of the writer’s imagination.

        Sorry, I just get skeptical whenever people start making sweeping claims about “many people” doing this or that without providing any evidence to support such claims and when in fact I can’t imagine where such evidence would come from. It’s not convincing argumentation.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

          I agree with you 100%, Melanie. And even if someone tells you a reason which seems obviously trivial, it’s entirely possible that there’s another, more serious reason that is too personal to share. We’re all on the same side here — and it’s hard enough to keep track of our own motivations, without worrying about everyone else.

        • Blake Helgoth

          Melanie,

          I have had many a discussion with Catholics, engaged, newly married, just starting a family, etc. who say from the get go, “we are only going to have 2 children.” The reasons given are often financial or time oriented, or even worse, population oriented. True, some could have other reasons they are not sharing, but the number of times I hear this makes that excuse weak at best.

          As for the priest, I used to work for a parish (for seven years) and new many of the priest in the dioceses. Many of which though large families were too much of a burden on couples unless one of them happened to be a CEO or some such thing. So, they are not a figment of my imagination (I wish they were), they are real. Often they are thought to be a burden on the resources of the parish as well, especially regarding parochial schools.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

            Blake, something to keep in mind is that lots of us had stupid or inadequate ideas about life when we were just starting out in our marriages. I don’t think NFP is a magic wand to change people’s hearts automatically, but it does have a way of changing you over the years. I do know several couples who started out with a firm plan to have one or two via NFP, and gradually changed their minds. (And I know a few Catholic husbands who’ve had vasectomies and then reversals!)

          • http://www.thewinedarksea.com/weblog.php MelanieB

            Blake, I’d be surprised that all those who say they want only two are really practicing NFP.

            Although from this and your other comment about charting, I’d wonder about how NFP is being presented in your diocese. If engaged and newly married couples are learning NFP and still have that attitude, as Simcha says some of it is perhaps immaturity, (but there is hope that by at least being open to NFP as opposed to contraception they will move toward a greater discernment of God’s will in their lives). But it’s also possible that there is a problem with leadership and instruction especially if as you say you have encountered so many priests with an attitude that is contrary to openness to life.

            On the other hand, I think back to my pre-Cana class and how many couples there were clearly living together and how many of them were rolling their eyes during the talks on sexuality and how many of them were clearly biding their time to get the slip of paper so they could have their church wedding. It’s a hard thing when so many Catholics are brought up knowing nothing of the Church’s teaching. I’d say the ones who cared enough to learn NFP are the few who are even bothering to not just take the easy route of contraception. So like Simcha says, if there is still room for many of them to undergo further conversion, becoming more open to children, then well how different are they from any of us? There’s still plenty of room in my life for more conversion, for more openness to God’s voice and his calling, for more holiness. We are all in process. So, yeah, definitely we need to work on teaching young people what the Church teaches and on presenting NFP clearly. But when so few Catholics even care enough to throw away their pills and condoms and replace them with charts… well, all I can say is there are many fronts on which the battle needs to be pursued. But maybe you can understand why many people in this discussion are less concerned about NFP being used wrongly by a certain percentage of users than with the bigger mess of a society which is completely deaf to the Church’s teaching.

          • Martha

            You really think the couples saying that are using NFP? I’ve had conversations like that with women who have later told me which form of birth control they were using. (I can honestly think of 4, right now, all Catholic.). But I can’t actually think of 4 couples in my this parish or our previous one who have told me they use NFP. Of any family size.

      • Sarah

        The beauty of NFP is that it is very difficult to use in the “wrong” way. It’s not contraception. A couple using NFP is always leaving a window cracked open to God. It’s not the same as saying “No! Never!” It’s more like saying “We have prayerfully discerned that now is not a good time because of XY and Z, but we know that our lives are in God’s hands and he is free to “trump” our decision anytime…. and we will be ok with that.” One of the most important things I have learned in my 12 yrs of marriage is to never judge someone else’s situation based on what I see. Where I used to pridefully think that people were selfish or “using NFP wrong” I now realize that you never know what is going on in someone else’s heart or someone else’s life…. and I think there is so much truth to the original post, and that sometimes it takes a TON of humility to say that you don’t feel able to have another child for the time being…… and must prudently use NFP.

      • Denise

        “that does not mean one is not then being asked to look into adoption”

        With this I agree. God is telling us personally to increase our family size, but what we are having trouble discerning is if we should try to conceive, or adopt. Maybe both – yikes!

        There is more than one way to be open to life, and conceiving another baby is actually the easier option.

    • Maggie Dee

      Ok. My confusion was thinking that some Catholics think it’s wrong to use NFP and I didn’t understand why. I guess I was being a little flippant in that regards since I’m an “ahem” older Mom. Sometimes it’s easy to forget what’s it’s like to abstain. Since I became a Catholic later in life, I never had to deal with these questions. Although, looking at my small little family now, I wish that I had. I think (or hope) that our family would be bigger.

      I do wish that we could as a church stop trying to discern other’s inner life and judging each other so harshly. None of us really have any clue what it is like living in another person’s shoes or head. Most days I’m not so sure of my own motivation for my choices, how can I know someone elses?

      • Regina

        Go Maggie Dee! We should all mind our own houses, especially if nosing into another’s business requires mind reading.

      • http://www.dvoraks-climbingthemountain.com Erin

        Amen, Maggie Dee. I really like what you have said.

        I don’t believe God is calling every person to the same exact thing. Not everyone’s road to salvation is exactly the same. The most important thing is to seek God and His will for you in your own life. We are all called to spread the Gospel and bring Jesus to others, but let Jesus tell them HOW they are to live out his will i.e. family size or women wearing pants v. skirt.

        I believe with everything in me that God calls ALL married couples to be open to life and to discern that in conjunction with Him and His will, but I also believe that He does NOT call all families to have 7+ children. So many factors and variables are at play. God knows all of this and we don’t. God’s Will for each soul is their eternal salvation. That may be better brought about with 4 children as opposed to 8, which might push someone over the edge. Again, only God and the souls seeking His will can discern this. Let’s trust that God can take care of His people or can bring good out of mistakes.

        Also, Maggie Dee, I strongly agree that if the church teaches something, who am I to question that or think I am better than church teaching. That just seems arrogant to me to think not only that one knows more or better than church teaching, but that one must judge others with that knowledge. That kind of thinking reminds me of the Catholic hating Christians who believe the Catholic Church is the whore of Babylon and they must set Christians free from her.

        God Bless all of you. Wonderful Discussion!

  • Nina

    *whoops, didn’t mean to post yet…..*

    large families who feel that they were abused, and feel called to point out in a public way the inherent problems found in this lifestyle (when most parents, I am sure, like myself, have the best of intentions and are sinners, don’t mean to fail our kids, are struggling to understand and to discern and to do what they think God wants faithfully, i.e. be prudent). I think the tendency is to criticize just as much on the side of couples who allow the children to come as those who make efforts to limit their family size, in prudence.

  • http://www.clan-donaldson.com Cari

    It has been my experience both personal and relayed to me through first-hand sources, that those who are of the “no NFP ever” camp run the very real risk of treating your spouse just as lustfully as those who contracept.

    Both ends of the spectrum have no need to practice the “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing” mentality that those of us using NFP do. When I want to make love to my husband during a fertile period, as a NFP-practicing couple, we have to think very carefully about several different things. He can no longer be just the means to an end- we *have* to be a team.

    If we choose to “refrain from embracing”, and I’m- er- *frustrated* with that decision, I am given the fantastic opportunity to look at my attitude toward sex and how it makes me treat my husband. Usually, I discover that my desire to make love to my husband was motivated less by an urge to *give* and more by a desire to *get*. Then I get to ask God to forgive me for turning my husband (even partially) into a sex object, and be grateful for this opportunity to grow in holiness.

    Now, fast forward to times when I’m pregnant and we no longer have to communicate at the same levels regarding lovemaking. On more than one occasion I’ve heard it said that pregnancy is like a “get out of jail free card” in terms of sex. You can have it whenever! As much as you want! No bothersome refraining from embracing! Hardly the environment for encouraging thoughtful reflection on a holy attitude toward your sexuality. While my mindset doesn’t become “contraceptive” (duh), I do notice that I am more likely to treat sex as an act that gives me something, rather than a chance to give of myself.

    This is the same thing I’ve heard from friends who don’t use NFP- that they “get to have sex whenever they want it”. The focus seems to be both “me-centered” and “pleasure-centered” and less “other-centered” and “growing in unity”.

    Now I know that not everyone in the anti-NFP camp shares this lustful mindset. And not everyone who is practicing NFP uses the time to refrain from embracing to grow in holiness. But it is my observation that when you remove the need to discern sexual contact, you are exposed to the temptation to regard your spouse as a means to a sexual end much more.

    • Nina

      Cari, you are indeed one “lucky” woman! Wanting your spouse like that can only be a blessing. ;) From what I’ve heard/read/experienced, this is often imbalanced, with the husband feeling he has the stronger desire, and the wife perhaps struggling to “keep up” or give a sincere response. So: praise God for that.

      Interestingly, I am not anti-NFP in any way but have not really used it much in my 23-year marriage (mostly breastfeeding spacing). I do not think we are having more relations that any other couple—- (i.e. the comments, “don’t you know what causes that”, “get a hobby” I find ironic; it is possible and probable that we are indulging in intimacy less often than those on birth control!).

      I have been “available”, I suppose, more often that not, but it has not been due to lust. I think that for many of us, perhaps even due to temperament, there is a different motivation: a deep bonding and profound renewal that occurs, truly like experiencing a flood of graces as if receiving a sacrament. More so that, than a physical release or sexual experience, if that makes sense? And if that is so, with all of the struggles in marriage and all that is working against us, it is not only a good thing for some couples, but even a necessary thing. ?

      • http://www.clan-donaldson.com Cari

        Nina,

        I am indeed a “lucky” woman. :)

        And are we all, to have a God that created our sexuality to be so much more than solely a means for reproduction or pleasure!

      • gussie

        Cari and Nina, your comments are full of great insights and food for thought. What a complicated subject! Just illustrates too how different each marriage is. I’m afraid this NFP business is just so subjective that’s it’s really hard to say anything about it (e.g. right in this situation, wrong in that situation) except to discuss personal experience. Just wanted to say thanks for your input, it is helpful.

      • http://www.thewinedarksea.com/weblog.php MelanieB

        It’s not just “like” experiencing a flow of graces. Graces do indeed flow. Marriage is a sacrament and the moment of sexual consummation *is* the consummation of that sacrament of matrimony and thus it is a moment in which spouses receive the fullness of the graces of the sacrament.

        • Nina

          Yes.

  • Lauren

    What a wonderful, insightful, charitable discussion. Thanks to all!

  • Blake Helgoth

    Prudence requires action as often as it requires limiting action. We cannot plan our families or our spacing of children. We cannot know if one child will die early, or if we will lose the ability to conceive. With all of our charts and modern medicine it can be easy to imagine that we are the ones in control when we are not. My wife and I have been through 6 miscarriages. We have four healthy children. We have begun to learn that we have no idea what the future holds for us. You never know how much money you are going to have, when you are going to lose a job, when radical changes will be made to your lives, what is going to happen in the world around us, etc. Often, NFP is discussed as though we can plan our future. We cannot. What we can do is asses the current situation, taking into account all things, most importantly the providence of God and our own weakness, and then move forward. Many times the prudent thing is to have another child and trust God to provide what we are lacking, either in virtue, wisdom, finances, etc. Often, having another child is what makes us grow up and take responsibility. We also cannot assume that God means for us to have a large family – that is a blessing giving to some, not something we deserve to have. Children are always good. It is natural to desire many. If a couple does not desire this then they need to look into the reasons why. They are one of the ends of marriage, that is to say, one of the reasons for marriage in the first place.

    • http://a Anonymous for this

      Blake, I’m anonymous for this b/c not my story–but some women can’t have six miscarriages w/o it taking a really, really, really serious toll on their physical/mental health. Your wife is blessed if that’s not the case for her. There was a 19th cent. murder case–never proved–where the wife was thought to have murdered her husband in a state of mental breakdown after her fourth or fifth miscarriage in a row (all in a year or two).

      This is why each couple has to make these decisions. With multiple miscarriages one woman may desperately want to keep trying. Another may desperately need some time of abstinence. Loving husbands will help them come to a prudent decision.

  • Blake Helgoth

    One more thing – it is a serious thing to forgo marital intimacy. It is one of the blessing God has given couples to bind them together. One needs to have serious reasons for avoiding sexual intimacy as well as a serious plan for increasing the intimacy in other areas of their lives if they are to use NFP to avoid pregnancy.

    • http://www.thewinedarksea.com/weblog.php MelanieB

      I’d definitely agree with this. Marital intimacy is a very serious matter and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

    • Nina

      If we like it or not, this proves to be so true! Thank you for expressing this so well.

    • PonyPam

      Yes, Blake, a couple needs to have serious reasons to avoid sexual intimacy. The reasons which are serious for one couple may not even hit the radar of another. Neither you nor I can determine what reasons are or are not serious for any other couple than the ones to which we belong. And that is why I sincerely doubt the Church will ever speak with more clarity on what constitutes a “serious/ grave/ just” reason to use NFP.

  • Blake Helgoth

    Please allow me one more comment. It seems that practicing NFP to avoid pregnancy allows the idea that ‘the procreation of children’ should be avoided to creep into every marital act. When ones is giving themselves to their spouse they wind up thinking, ‘I hope we don’t get pregnant, but if we do I will accept that.’ Even our charting shows green days on the days when it is ‘safe’ to enter into the marital act. It seems the contraceptive mentality slips in. Does anyone else have thought about this?

    • http://www.thewinedarksea.com/weblog.php MelanieB

      That wasn’t how I was taught charting. Our Diocese’s Family Life office teaches how to identify fertile and infertile days on the charts. Nothing about green days and red days or any of that nonsense. If that is how it is being presented to you, then I’d agree it ‘s a problematic way of presenting NFP. However, bad teaching/poor presentation and understanding does not mean the method is bad in itself. Just that instructors should be careful to present the Church’s teaching on openness to life and to give some guidance in moral discernment. If that isn’t being done, the fault lies in the implementation.

      • Blake Helgoth

        Ok, charting methods asside, does anyone have any thoughts on the other?

      • Becky

        I think by “green days” he means that Billings Ovulation Method and the Creighton FertilityCare Method both use green stamps to represent dry/infertile days.

  • http://www.thewinedarksea.com/weblog.php MelanieB

    Blake, sure. I agree that it is possible to let that fear creep in while using NFP. After my second c-section I spent some time being a bit afraid to have a third baby too soon. But then again I live in a culture where my OB is giving me weird looks for not using anything else. I can’t find a pro-life OB anywhere within driving distance so I was stuck looking at ads for the pill while waiting to have a nurse ask me if this was a planned pregnancy. NFP charting reminds me where I stand and gives me a chance to think about how God made my body and what his will for me is.

    After baby #3 and my third c-section the fear crept back in once again. My husband said we should try to wait till baby was two before we had #4 to give my body a chance to rest and heal from all the surgeries. Four pregnancies in 5 years is a lot, he said. (3 c-sections, one miscarriage). But though fear was sometimes there it wasn’t in every marital act. And we continued to trust in God. And then baby #4 was conceived when baby #3 was only 10 months old.

    I’ll probably approach intimacy with some trepidation after this baby is born too. I’m learning to trust God but I’m also concerned with how long it takes me to recover after each surgery. I’m concerned with how it affects a 16 month old toddler when suddenly mommy can’t pick her up for several months. It tears my heart to be afraid of intimacy wth my husband; but it also tears my heart to have the fear of my children, to say: “Watch out! Careful! gentle! every time my kids come near me because I’m afraid they’ll kick or elbow my healing abdomen. Perfect love drives out fear; but I’m still nowhere near perfect.

    Still, I’m grateful that we learned NFP so that intimacy didn’t feel like a game of Russian roulette during those 10 months before my son was conceived who is now kicking inside me. I was grateful that God gave us the ability to continue to be intimate while avoiding pregnancy for a time allowing for a greater space between these two boys of mine. (Ten months being the longest so far we’ve gone between pregnancies, I tend to conceive on the first fertile cycle.) For me I think the fear would be definitely worse without NFP than with it.

    Sorry for too much sharing of personal details; but I know of no other way to begin to answer your question because I don’t think it can be answered in broad generalities. All I know is my own heart and its struggles. I suspect there are couples out there who do let fear govern their sexual lives. Still, I think it is as true to say that NFP can be a tool which can help some people to conquer those fears as much as it can be a tool which can foster them. There are no perfect tools in this broken world.

  • Minna

    To imply that no one before the 20th century knew anything about child-spacing for family planning is to seriously misunderstand history. The Church has always recognized abstinence as a morally acceptable means of avoiding pregnancy when husband and wife were in agreement as to the necessity of doing so.

    That modern NFP reduces the amount of abstinence necessary to avoid pregnancy is certainly significant, but it’s not like the practice of forgoing intimacy when pregnancy seems inadvisable is definitely not new.

    Darwin Catholic addresses this in a most lucid and (at least in my reading) unique way here: http://darwincatholic.blogspot.com/2010/07/real-sex-vs-contraceptive-mentality.html

    In part, they (he? she? I’m often not quite sure whether I’m reading Mr. or Mrs.) write:

    “The assumption which has, over the last 80+ years since the use of artificial birth control became widespread, become so basic to our culture as to be completely unspoken and unconscious, even among those of us who see ourselves as standing in opposition to it, is that a happily married husband and wife will have a “good sex life” consisting of regular marital relations, sometimes passionate or creative, sometimes comfortable and familiar, which expresses the couples love and affection for one another. Even for those of us who see fertility as a part of our marriage equal to and related to conjugal bliss, it’s nearly impossible to shake the feeling of, “We’re married; we should be able to do this . . . in the modern world [the] understanding of sex which existed before the 20th century is remote and nearly irrecoverable for us — the understanding which saw it as something of a double-edged sword, intensely pleasurable but at the same time as potentially high in cost. ”

    Very wise, methinks, and well worth pondering when considering whether NFP is some sort of modern easy way out.

  • http://thechurchfanatic.blogspot.com LLMom

    Thanks Simcha, for touching on this subject. It needs to be discussed.

    Some of these comments smack of legalism very similar to discussions on modesty and school choices. The church has very broad guidelines for a reason…we are all different, all given different strengths, talents, needs, etc. It is not our place to judge anothers reason for using NFP or not.

  • karyn

    I’m blown away that a discussion of prudence seems to involve NFP versus not practicing anything. Most of the young families in my parish are done having children (as they tell me, not that I asked) and they have shared how they are “fixed” and what have you. When I shared my struggles as a new Catholic with the idea of NFP (we already have four before entering the Church) the priest told me “you’re not going to go to hell for using a piece of plastic or popping a pill”. So in our parish, and in general society, prudence is using birth control and irresponsibility is using NFP (which is doing nothing, as most people see it). I wish I was around more people like you and your readers who are actually trying to use NFP in an obedient and prudent way.

  • lisa

    just this: my phil professor always infuriated his students with the following definition of prudence:

    Prudence is as prudence does. There it is…in the action or refraining of action, in the circumstances of your life. Personal, always.

  • http://fineoldfamly.blogspot.com Sally Thomas

    I think, too, that being prudential means not only doing what seems wisest and most right, in the light of your conscience, at a given time, but also understanding and accepting whatever the unseen consequences of that prudential decision might be in the greater scheme of your life. Or to put it another way, to understand that God will use your prudence in unexpected ways, for His own ends.

    Not that that’s easy to do, or that I can claim to have done it — hindsight is 20/20, as they say. We actually weren’t yet Catholic in the brief time that we used NFP, but we were broke and not supporting, on our own, the children we then had. We felt that under those circumstances, it wasn’t right to ask our relatives to support any more of us than they already were. Whether we were right or wrong, or lacking in faith, I don’t know, but that’s what we discerned. And to be honest, what probably greased the decision at the time was that, having had our last two children within 16 months of each other, when I was 37 and 39, I always sort of assumed that I could be one of those mothers surprised by joy late in life.

    What I really didn’t count on was menopause at 44. I cannot say that when I was being prudential at 41 and 42, and also buying pregnancy tests every month, because I was mistaking the onset of menopause for that joyful surprise, that I was being prudential in the way I described above. What I did learn, especially as the truth of things dawned on me, as it slowly did, was that praying the Angelus daily, and saying, “Be it done unto me according to your word,” didn’t merely mean being open to life as in being open to the life of a new child (I had begun praying the Angelus as an Anglican, when I was pregnant with my fourth child and we were already in rather dire straits). It meant being open to all of it, including the taking-away of that promise of joy.

    So — as with any kind of “control” we might think we have — the “control” NFP offers is an illusion, though not always in the way we expect. And our prudence will almost certainly play out in directions which we cannot foresee. This isn’t an argument for or agin a *particular* kind of prudential decision, just an observatoin that we never really get a pass from being under God’s hand, which I learned in this particular way. And it was a way of having to learn, against my will, how big the picture really is, and how small I am in it.

  • Beth

    Simcha says:

    Deleted. Said I didn’t want to talk about it. On your own blog, feel free to write a new post every day, entitled “reasons I think other people shouldn’t have kids.” You know, for Advent!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      Also: you said:

      “other

      families are smaller worker 2 jobs just to make ends meet (not materialism here) and they are paying for the larger families via their taxes and being scorned at the same time for not being a stay at home mom and having a larger family. Who is the one really open to life here?”

      It occurs to me that maybe you are describing yourself here, and some prideful Catholic has scorned you. If so, that’s awful, and that would explain your attitude somewhat. However, I hope you can see that no one here has done that. The most thoughtful comments in this thread come from dozens of different types of experiences, but most have in common this idea: you never know what someone else is going through, and the best we can do is to keep up with our own lives. That this thing is more complicated than it seemed.

      I find it helpful, every so often, to think about what I believe and ask myself, “Is that a Catholic idea? Or is it just a Conservative idea?”

    • Nina

      Thank you for this, Simcha. Just: thank you. I for one would love to hear more/read more on why people *should* have children. Merry Christmas to you, your family and to all of your readers.

      “And a little child shall lead them……”

  • Beth

    Oh gosh no Simcha I was not describing myself and no I have not been scorned:( I do however hear this scorning often. And no I don’t think asking challenging questions is scorning. And no I would not call myself a conservative.

    This was not something personal addressed to you or any individual family out there. I don’t even know you!!! So I guess maybe you have been scorned. I’m sorry you have.

    I don’t have any intentions of writing a blog on why other people should not have more children but it seems to me this topic of prudence and wisdom brings up why we sometimes should not have more children and sometimes as a Church it helps to discuss them. Over the years I have seen marriages and families fall apart because of many things but a lack of discernment and prudence were part of it. So when the topic comes up again maybe it would help to detach yourself emotionally from it–I find that helpful for myself with issues that I am vulnerable too.

    I was so in love with new life that my husband and I purposely conceived in the middle of a very serious illness all because I wanted a baby–there was not a lot of prudence there but I think it is important to consider now whereas before I thought differently because of who I listened too. And yes I am so grateful for that life but it was almost at the expense of my own life. So there you can scorn me because I don’t always operate with prudence.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      Beth, I really try not to scorn anyone. I just know what my weaknesses are. It would be nice to say, “Oh, I’ll just detach emotionally,” but sometimes it’s better to just say, “Obviously I should be more detached, but I know that talking about this right now would do more more harm than good.”

      There are many other blogs and fora where people are happy to discuss this topic — I’m just asking that people not do it here. I don’t say that no one should ever discuss it anywhere! I guess it’s more a matter than I know I can’t talk about this without getting all emotional, so I’d rather preserve my dignity and get a little censorious.