When Catholics talk about NFP, someone always asks rather plaintively why the Church doesn’t just clear up all the confusion about what does and does not constitute a legitimate reason to avoid a pregnancy. Why not just make a list: on the right, good reasons for postponing a pregnancy; on the left, bad reasons?
Obviously we should still pray and try to discern God’s will for us — but why does it have to be so vague? Why doesn’t the Church just give us a break and spell it out already?
Most of those who want more clarity are genuine seekers after God’s will, looking for more guidance as they discern the best path for their marriage. Others are looking for a definitive document to prove that their neighbors are abusing NFP, using it with a “contraceptive mentality.”
The Church does, of course, give us guidelines (I’m shamelessly cribbing these citations from an excellent article my sister, Abigail Tardiff, wrote several years ago, addressing this same question much more pithily):
If therefore there are reasonable grounds for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that then marries people may take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and use their marriage at precisely those times that are infertile, and in this way control birth… (Humanae Vitae, n. 16).
For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood…” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2368).
My sister also reminds us:
Pope Pius XII says that serious motives, such as “medical, eugenic, economic, and social” reasons, can exempt a couple from the obligation of bearing children (“Address to the Italian Catholic Union of Midwives”).
But why doesn’t the Church give some specific examples of what qualifies as a just reason? Well, one problem is that my just reason is not necessarily the same as your just reason.
For instance, we could say, “Severe economic instability is a good reason to postpone pregnancy.” But …
- Woman A grew up deathly poor, and fully expected to die before she hit age 40. Her husband is disabled and often out of work, and sometimes they have to scramble for the rent on their tiny house — but this is routine and tolerable for them, and causes no turmoil. With help from friends and government programs, they are raising happy, healthy children on $25,000 a year.
- Woman B grew up wealthy, has always generously endowed Crisis Pregnancy Centers in her town, and always hoped to have a large family of her own. But a catastrophe struck, she went bankrupt, and has to sell everything and move into a tiny house and live on $25,000 a year. They’re still reeling from the shock of what their life has become, and are trying to learn how to accept help, rather than giving it.
- Woman C lives a tiny house and live on $25,000 a year, which her husband manages thriftily, so no one is deprived. But she makes him sleep on the couch until he agrees to quit his job at the library so he can make more money and they can catch up with their fancy friends next door, who go to Rio every March.
- Woman D recently quit her high-paying job so she can stay home and have babies. They now live on her husband’s salary of $25,ooo a year and can hardly wait to fill their tiny new house with children.
You see? Objectively, the circumstances are the same, and “severe economic instability” describes all four. But their attitude toward having another baby right then would be entirely different. It’s not enough to say, “Lilies of the field and so on. We must trust God.” That’s not asking much from women A, but it’s asking heroism from woman B.
Or you could say, “You shouldn’t postpone a pregnancy just so you can lose a little weight.”
- Woman A is healthy and beautiful, but is married to a man who berates her nightly for not fitting into the jeans she wore in high school, even though that was twenty years and five babies ago. He has taught her to hate herself, and will torture her emotionally if she makes a charting mistake and gets pregnant.
- Woman B preaches radical openness to life, but in her most honest moments will admit to herself that having lots of babies happens to be a fabulous excuse for never having to deal with her lifelong gluttony. After all, she can’t diet, because she’s pregnant (or postpartum, or nursing…)
- Woman C used to be anorexic, and with years of therapy and hard work has achieved a healthy weight. But being even five pounds over that healthy weight puts her in danger of a relapse, and the idea of another pregnancy gives her panic attacks.
- Woman D is just a petty twit who wants to make her fatter friends feel bad when they see her hot new body. No baby this year, not after all the money she put into lipo!
Or you could say, “Just trust God with your fertility! We’re not in control of our lives; God is.”
- Woman A is fearful, anxious, rigid and domineering. Her husband is a little bit afraid of her, and her confessor always urges her to trust God more.
- Woman B is childish and weak, and tends to leave all the heavy thinking to her husband — and then feels sorry for herself when they suffer the consequences of his choices. Their marriage is miserable, and her confessor always tells her to be more of an adult.
- Woman C is careless and selfish and lacks self-control, and her confessor always tells her to use more prudence, take more responsibility.
- Woman D tries with all her might to be as holy as the other women around her, and she keeps having more babies to prove her trust in God, even though her household is out of control and her children are neglected. Her confessor always tells her that God asks different things of different people, and to keep her eyes on her own work.
“Trusting God” is wonderful, but means something entirely different in each of these cases.
Or you could say, “A large family is a sign of God’s blessing. You’ll never regret having another baby!”
- Woman A always wanted a big family, and happily gives birth three times in the first three years of her marriage. She looks forward to many more years of fertility.
- Woman B always wanted a big family, but now that she has six children, and a few of them turned out to have special needs, she figures it would be a good thing to take a break. She also wants to work out a few problems in her marriage that have been brewing unresolved under the chaos for a few years.
- Woman C always wanted a big family, and now has nine children. She probably has another decade of fertility to go, and while she loves her kids dearly, she is just plain tired. She and her husband are actually much more financially and emotionally stable than they were when they started their family — and yet the idea of another pregnancy fills her with dread.
- Woman D always wanted a big family and is on the verge of menopause — and suddenly feels a deep yearning for just one more baby, for reasons that have nothing to do with the reasons she had twenty-five years ago on her honeymoon.
These women are, of course, all the same woman, at different stages in her life. She has always trusted God, and God has blessed her in different ways at different times. You see, you can’t even apply a specific, inflexible, objective rule to one woman: there are still just too many variables. For any specific, objective rule you laid down, you could find exceptions which are within the realm of normal human circumstances.
Can we ever say that we have an indisputably good reason, or an indisputably bad reason, for postponing a pregnancy? Of course. It’s just that I can’t think of anything more personal and private than these reasons. I believe that if the Church ever did give a specific, objective list of legitimate reasons for avoiding or achieving pregnancy, it would cause more confusion, not less. People with good reasons to postpone a pregnancy would doubt themselves, and people with no good reason would find loopholes. People would judge each other even more than they already do (which is a shameful amount), and it would distract from the soul’s conversation with God.
Yes, worldly, modernized couples need to hear someone say, “Marriage is for making children, and children are a privilege, not a burden. Don’t squander the gift of your fertility, but seek the gifts that God is offering.” But I grow more and more skeptical of the charge that, among the tiny fraction of Catholics who use NFP, most use it with a “contraceptive mentality.” How about this: men who have seven or more children are probably raping their wives every night. What’s that you say? It’s not like that at all? Well, that’s how it looked from the outside. It cuts both ways: if you can read the hearts of couples with only a few children, then I can read the hearts of couples with many. See how ugly that gets? Only one Person knows what’s in another man’s heart, and that person ain’t you or me.
And for people who aren’t out to judge anyone else, but just want more clarity and guidance in their own lives, here’s a cheering quote from my sister’s article:
The Church’s moral teachings are a great gift, because they save us from the bad effects of innocent wrong-doings; they can stop us from unknowingly messing up our lives, if we’re humble enough to listen. But they don’t replace a tryst with the Creator — and who would want them to?
So if the Church seems distressingly vague, it’s because she doesn’t want to get in the way of the conversation you could be having with God. He doesn’t want to talk to The Church as a whole: He wants to talk to you.
And that’s why the Church doesn’t just make a list.