Ad Contra Providentialists–Natural Family Planning Awareness Week

It’s NFP Awareness Week according to the USCCB and several Patheos bloggers are taking a look at the topic.  Simcha is doing a massive give-away contest over at her place.  Tom McDonald has a solid post on the havoc the Pill is wreaking on the environment.

Others are taking notice as well.   It is strange to me that with so few people actually practicing it (about 2% of Catholics) NFP Catholics still come under fire from far right providentialists who believe that it is morally suspect to attempt to consciously do anything to plan one’s family.   The Personalist Project’s Katie van Schaijik responds to the providentialists and gets it exactly right.    As a very orthodox theologian friend of mine put it, “in truth, providentialism is very hard to defend from a Catholic perspective.”  Here’s a sample of Katherine’s argument.  By all means, though, you should go and read the rest.

…the real problem with providentialism is something very different; something deep and far-reaching—going, in fact, to the innermost heart of our Faith. In brief, providentialism represents and perpetuates a false view of human sexuality, of marriage and of the Christian moral life—a view that malforms consciences, grievously burdens families, and misrepresents the Church to the world.

Serious charges, I am aware. Please bear with me while I explain.

First, let me repeat a key distinction, helpfully enunciated by Dr. Smith in the course of her talk. There are two critically different kinds of providentialists, which in shorthand we may call personal providentialists and theoretical providentialists. The problem I am speaking of is only with the latter. It has nothing at all to do with those spouses who, taking into prayerful account the unique inward and outward circumstances of their married life, freely and generously open themselves to as many children as come to them.3 In fact, I’ll even grant gladly that the Church has a “preferential love” for such families, just as she has for the poor. (What Catholic heart can resist them?) The problem is not with these, but with those who “add to God’s law” by seeking to impose an obligation on all married couples that is not to be found in the teachings of the Church, viz., that unless prevented by nature or emergencies, all married couples ought to have large families; and, correlatively, no couple should make use of NFP, except in very rare cases, and then only with sincere regret and extreme caution.4 (NB: This kind of providentialist can be found among priests, teachers and single lay Catholics, as well as married couples. It is not unknown among college students.)

What does the Church really say?

The teaching of the Church with respect to family planning is straightforward, clear and easily summarized.

1)   Spouses must be willing to accept children lovingly.

2)   Spouses may not practice contraception.

3)   Taking into consideration a whole range and variety of factors, including physical, economic, psychological and sociological factors, spouses may do well to practice Natural Family Planning to space children and/or limit family size, provided that they do so with due moral seriousness—with a generous, responsible and prayerful sense of what they owe to God, to one another, to their children and to society.

That’s all.  (go read the rest)

Admittedly, this can be a difficult topic to sort out for oneself, especially when so few pastors are prepared to speak to this issue in any kind of an informed way.  If you would like to learn more about the Catholic vision of love, what the Church actually teaches and how to respond to the obstacles couples often face in living the truth of that teaching in their lives, check out Holy Sex!  A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.    As one reader put it, “This book courageously and unashamedly explores the true source, meaning, and purpose of our sexuality. It explodes the myth that the Church and sex are nearly mutually exclusive, and reveals the dignity and reverence that the Church places upon sex and sexuality not only for procreation but just as importantly for its absolute integral importance for creating and nurturing a deep, true, spiritual marital relationship. This book shows us that physical pleasure is indeed very good and highly encouraged by the Church in the marital relationship. Not in the same way that physical pleasure is presented to us in the thin veneer of eroticism that society inundates us with, but as a beautiful part of something much deeper and more meaningful.”

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