Throughout all the scientific advances and research that aid our knowledge and further our understanding of God's ingenious reproductive process, this article serves as a reminder that we must evermore guard our hearts by prudently discerning even the noblest of our human yearnings.
A Theological Caution on NFP
Rev. Benedict M. Guevin, OSB., Ph.D., S.T.D.
Ethics and Medics September 2000
Volume 25 Number 9
In “The Science of Natural Family Planning” (Ethics & Medics [25:5] May 2000), Mary E. and Robert T. Kambic of The Johns Hopkins University of Public Health review the scientific findings that are the foundation of Natural Family Planning [NFP] in the hope that preachers and teachers will use the information to renew acquaintance with and commitment to its practice. Having described the various methods of NFP, their effectiveness and certain misconceptions surrounding them, they discuss the benefits that come from their use: increased intimacy, lower divorce rates, and the diagnosis and treatment of infertility. Being a proponent of NFP in my upper level college course on sexual ethics, I laud the clear and accurate presentation of these two scientists.
Desire to Be a Parent
But I would like to issue a word of caution, not so much to the Kambics, but to those who may become or who are already committed to the use of NFP. This caution does not concern the practice of NFP itself, but rather what may be an unrecognized attitude toward future children that may be present in those who otherwise practice these methods in good faith. This unrecognized attitude can be stated as follows: to see future children not as a gift from the creative hand of God but as a means to satisfy the desire to be a parent.
Natural Family Planning is an effective method for spacing and limiting the birth of children. Such limiting and spacing is part of responsible parenthood when, for physical or psychological conditions of the husband or wife, or for external conditions (see Humanae Vitae [HV], n. 16) a couple decides to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth (HV, n. 10).
But, as the Kambics indicate, NFP may also be used to plan a pregnancy: either because the couple has decided that the time is right, or because previous attempts at becoming pregnant have failed. If there is no medical problem, the charting of the most fertile times, and the discovery of irregularities in the woman’s signs and symptoms, can help many couples achieve a pregnancy of which they once despaired.
The avoidance of a pregnancy, either now or for an indeterminate period of time, for the legitimate reasons stated above, generally marks the attitude of parents using NFP. It is a responsible exercise of parenthood.
But what about the attitude of a couple who is using NFP in order to conceive a child? Undoubtedly, many couples do so with an outlook that is theologically commensurate with the method. Others, however, with good faith, may harbor the view that sees children as a means of satisfying their desire to be parents. Is such an approach in harmony with the theology that lies behind Natural Family Planning?
Children as God’s Gift
It is, of course, legitimate for a couple to want to have children. Among the characteristic features of conjugal love—a love that is human, total, faithful and exclusive—is that it is also fecund (HV, n. 9). In other words, conjugal love is not exhausted by the union of husband and wife, but is destined to continue by bringing forth new life (HV, n. 9). Indeed, [m]arriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute substantially to the welfare of the parents (Gaudium et spes [GS], n. 50).
The Second Vatican Council recognizes that children are first and foremost gifts, indeed, the supreme gift of marriage. It recognizes, too, that children contribute to the welfare of their parents. But in what does this contribution consist? It consists, in the first instance, in the sanctification of the parents (GS, n. 48); second, “[w]ith sentiments of gratitude, affection and trust, they will repay their parents for the benefits given to them and will come to their assistance as devoted children in times of hardship and in the loneliness of old age” (GS, n. 48).
The gift of children can and, indeed, does bestow benefits on parents: sanctification and assistance in times of need. But nowhere is the satisfying of a couple’s desire to be parents a part of the Church’s understanding of the fecundity of conjugal love. Thus, while it is legitimate for a couple to want a child, a child, moreover, who may in fact, once conceived, satisfy a couple’s generative desires, it is not permitted for a couple to want a child in order to satisfy parenting needs. Such a desire would reduce the not-yet-born child to a means rather than an end. To avoid an attitude that may, unwittingly, reduce the not-yet-born child to a means rather than an end, couples should consider the extent and limits of their role in planning a pregnancy.
Planning a Pregnancy
Clearly, couples who use NFP in order to become pregnant are not leaving conception to chance. Among other things, responsible parenthood entails knowledge of and respect for the biological processes that make conception possible (HV, n. 10). Such knowledge and respect, as the Kambics point out, are gained by using NFP. But knowledge of and respect for these biological processes do not bring dominion over these processes with them. A conjugal act that “remains open to the transmission of life” (HV, n. 11) “capacitates” (HV, n.12) a couple for the generation of such new life. Couples are not the “arbiters of the sources of human life, but rather the ministers (emphasis added) of the design established by the Creator” (HV, n. 13).
Parents cooperate with God in the gift of transmitting human life by acknowledging the extent and limits of their role in planning a pregnancy. Such cooperation also acknowledges that God is the principle of human life which, from its inception, reveals the creating hand of God (HV, n. 13).
Parenthood is a worthy and God-given vocation which is rightly desired. This vocation allows husbands and wives to share in God’s own creative activity. NFP is a laudable means of sharing in God’s creation of new life. This new life is desired by God for its own sake and is sheer gift to be desired by parents for its own sake. The benefits such a new life bestow on parents are real, but such benefits should first be regarded as gifts from God.
Rev. Benedict M. Guevin, OSB., Ph.D., S.T.D.
Associate Professor of Theology
Saint Anselm College