What is a “just cause” for using natural family planning?

Eamonn Clark, STL

I am on a really deep dive right now into the source material and several questions surrounding the use of “natural family planning” (NFP). There is a LOT on my mind… many questions, many distinctions, and maybe a few answers. While I will wait to share my findings – primarily, whether and why this practice as broadly taught is in principle legitimate, illegitimate, or needs more qualification – here I want to explore what a “just cause” is for the use of periodic continence or NFP in the first place.

Before looking at the documents, to summarize briefly, NFP involves tracking the fertility of the woman in order to know when she can conceive. The idea is that abstaining from relations during those fertile times, or, conversely, trying especially hard to conceive during the fertile times, will be more conducive to the familial goals of the spouses. There are a number of ways to do this, but the specifics of the methods are beyond the scope of this post.

The texts which will be quoted are going to make the point, in various ways, that only serious reasons justify the recourse to the exclusive use of natural infertile periods. (To give you a sneak-peek of my other work on this question, part of my hypothesis is that NFP can be compared with speech in various ways – broad mental reservations can be justified by legitimate reasons, but one needs to have a good reason for speaking in the first place, or else it is idle speech. Thus, NFP needs not only a serious reason in principle but also in the individual case of its use, i.e., the legitimate need for the relaxation of concupiscence, not just “recreation.” But I am getting ahead of myself.) These come after several responses from the Sacred Penitentiary about the issue, twice in the 1800’s and once in 1932, slowly opening the door to the practice. But here we are only concerned with “just causes” for the use of NFP, not the liceity of the practice in itself. (It is true the 1932 decision refers to “just and grave causes,” but there is no elaboration.) Here they are, in order of appearance. Emphases added.

Pius XII, Address to Italian Midwives, October 29, 1951:

“However if the limitation of the act to the periods of natural sterility does not refer to the right itself but only to the use of the right, the validity of the marriage does not come up for discussion. Nonetheless, the moral lawfulness of such conduct of husband and wife should be affirmed or denied according as their intention to observe constantly those periods is or is not based on sufficiently morally sure motives. The mere fact that husband and wife do not offend the nature of the act and are even ready to accept and bring up the child, who, notwithstanding their precautions, might be born, would not be itself sufficient to guarantee the rectitude of their intention and the unobjectionable morality of their motives.

The reason is that marriage obliges the partners to a state of life, which even as it confers certain rights so it also imposes the accomplishment of a positive work concerning the state itself. In such a case, the general principle may be applied that a positive action may be omitted if grave motives, independent of the good will of those who are obliged to perform it, show that its performance is inopportune, or prove that it may not be claimed with equal right by the petitioner—in this case, mankind.

The matrimonial contract, which confers on the married couple the right to satisfy the inclination of nature, constitutes them in a state of life, namely, the matrimonial state. Now, on married couples, who make use of the specific act of their state, nature and the Creator impose the function of providing for the preservation of mankind. This is the characteristic service which gives rise to the peculiar value of their state, the ‘bonum prolis’. The individual and society, the people and the State, the Church itself, depend for their existence, in the order established by God, on fruitful marriages. Therefore, to embrace the matrimonial state, to use continually the faculty proper to such a state and lawful only therein, and, at the same time, to avoid its primary duty without a grave reason, would be a sin against the very nature of married life.

Serious motives, such as those which not rarely arise from medical, eugenic, economic and social so-called “indications,” may exempt husband and wife from the obligatory, positive debt for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life. From this it follows that the observance of the natural sterile periods may be lawful, from the moral viewpoint: and it is lawful in the conditions mentioned. If, however, according to a reasonable and equitable judgment, there are no such grave reasons either personal or deriving from exterior circumstances, the will to avoid the fecundity of their union, while continuing to satisfy to the full their sensuality, can only be the result of a false appreciation of life and of motives foreign to sound ethical principles.”

Pius XII, Address to the National Congress of the Family Front and the Association of Large Families, National Catholic Welfare Conference, Washington, DC, November 27, 1951:

On the other hand, the Church knows how to consider with sympathy and understanding the real difficulties of married life in our day. For this reason, in Our last address on conjugal morality, We affirmed the legitimacy and at the same time the limits – admittedly far-reaching – of regulating offspring, which, contrary to so-called “birth control”, is compatible with God’s law. One can indeed hope (but in this matter the Church naturally leaves judgment to medical science) that medical science will succeed in giving this licit method a sufficiently secure basis, and the most recent information seems to confirm this hope.

St. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, July 25, 1968

“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 latter 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 latter 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.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2368

“For just reasons (de iustis causis), 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. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality.”

So those are the most relevant texts about motives for NFP. Here’s Christian Brugger’s take.

Here’s mine.

First, one ought to note the distinction between the use of periodic continence and abstinence. The documents do not drill into this difference, and it is a potentially significant difference. In the Speech to Italian Midwives, Pius XII seems to address both of these practices under the same aspect, but it is not clear that they are morally equivalent. For the sake of simplicity, we will only address the use of periodic continence, that is, the “normal way” of using NFP, which is not total abstinence, though it seems to me there is an extension of this argument, if only partial, into the use of total abstinence as well.

Second, the only malleable or truly subjective consideration seems to be the economic factor. There are broadly 4 kinds of things which can legitimately influence the decision to use periodic continence.

  1. Economic (we will come back to this)
  2. Social and psychological (considerations like: are you possibly facing a divorce? is there nobody helpful emotionally in your life? are there sources of psychological and emotional distress which you cannot escape from and which already impede your normal functioning?)
  3. Physical and medical (considerations like: is pregnancy dangerous for the woman? is it dangerous for the child, whether by miscarriage or by serious birth defect or congenital illness? are you too unhealthy to raise a child well?)
  4. External and eugenic (considerations like: is there a “one-child” policy that would force you to obtain an abortion? is there some other regime which would radically endanger your child, such as a warlord looking for child soldiers? are you in a war zone? does your spouse intend on doing some strange genetic modification treatment/experiment on the child if the child isn’t “right”?)

The economic factor is the most interesting and most subjective consideration. Clearly, all the factors listed require some amount of “phronesis,” or “practical wisdom,” meaning a kind of judgment based on experience and reasonable estimation of what the possibilities are in the future.

Most couples in the developed world, I would suggest, are infrequently facing issues 2 through 4, although they do exist – and when they obtain, it is relatively clear, though there could be some ambiguity.

The economic factor is what most couples probably think about. “Can we afford another child?” This is the question. By this, almost nobody in the developed world who lives above the poverty line means, “Can we actually feed, clothe, and house this child, and provide for his or her medical needs,” it is rather something more minor… “Can we still do all the things we enjoy, in the way we enjoy them, if we have another child?” This is prescinding from the first few years, which absolutely excludes any sort of frequent extended leisure for almost every couple except the “1%”.

Some would say, “You do not need another television/car/house/vacation,etc., be more generous,” and that is their whole solution. While plausible, I think that there is a better or at least more nuanced path forward. That path is an application of the doctrine of St. Thomas and the manualists following him on the distribution of one’s wealth, through almsgiving and justice.

Justice demands that we pay fair taxes on our wealth and financially help those closely connected to us when they are in extreme indigence. Charity demands that we give some small amount of our excess wealth to those whose need, while not extreme and urgent, is serious, whether directly or through some intermediary (like a philanthropic organization). However, this giving based on charity does not ever need to disadvantage one to the point where he or she would live in a way that is unbecoming to his or her social class. To live in a way that is unbefitting is actually sinful on St. Thomas’ account, and to give that which would risk putting one in such a situation can only be justified by extraordinary circumstances, such as the clear choice to change states of life (i.e., entering religious life, giving all of your property away), the extreme need of an individual or the common good, or the case where one could foresee the easy recovery of adequate wealth to live in the way one is generally accustomed to.

I would cautiously suggest the following thesis, which I may modify in the future… Justice demands that the married couple is open to life in virtue of being married, and, insofar as economics bears on the question, charity – even the virtue of religion – demands that they try to have children (or at least not try to avoid having children) when they would not be moved down a social class thereby. Charity and religion demand us to love our neighbor – and by extension, our potential neighbor – on account of God’s love for them. Religion demands fitting sacrifices for the glory and honor of God, which in this case means that couples always have at least a habitual intention to raise children to be pious worshipers of Christ. Justice means rendering the other what is due, which means both the mutual self-giving of the spouses’ bodies to each other, and also the “legal justice” (one of the three types of justice) of providing for the common good of the community by having and raising children.

Nobody ever regrets having a child. It only goes in the opposite direction, whether by not having one or by the even more tragic decision to kill them in the womb. But sometimes the peripheral effects of having a child are regrettable and even warrant the avoidance of what would occasion them, even though children are the primary point of marriage as an office of nature. This is an act of prudence and magnanimity… To be reckless here can be imprudent and presumptuous. Even though God will always provide the child what he or she needs for salvation, it is the role of the parents to participate appropriately in that task, which task can be greatly complicated in some cases. It does not become impossible to do the will of God in such circumstances, but one does in fact sin by putting themselves into a situation which is beyond their natural means and habitual graces, which are the primary tools of discernment here.

A corollary is: if you aren’t ready to have kids, don’t get married…

There is so, so, so much to talk about in this minefield of issues. I have plenty more to say. But I will just let this bomb drop for now. I am running an unofficial survey right now on people’s attitudes towards NFP in view of some other writing, including eventually here on these pages. Please leave a comment below telling us what your thoughts are. Do young married people of this generation “just not get it”? Are the documents missing something which could help illuminate the problem? How is NFP presented in your parish and diocese? Tell me everything, I am interested to hear. You can use the “Contact” tab too, if you want.

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