John Paul II’s New Vision of Human Sexuality, Marriage and Family Life(4)

Natural Family Planning (NFP) and Responsible Parenthood

D. Natural Family Planning (NFP) and Responsible Parenthood

1. NFP

The special reciprocity between masculinity and femininity enables a man and a woman to love in a unique way. (And in this context, we are presuming that the man and woman are participating in the five characteristics of love. In other words, they are married and acting in accordance with their dignity.) In fact, it can be said that through the human sexual powers we can love in a more profound way than through any other of our physical attributes. (It is not that there are not greater acts of love, e.g., the mystical union with God which some of the saints have experienced, but such acts of love are primarily movements of grace within the soul and in essence are not physical.) Since our sexual powers enable us to love in a unique way, they enable us to act like God in a unique way. In loving through our sexual powers we become visible images of God in a very special way. In other words, in the physical act of love, the body expresses the person and reveals God in a most profound way. In studying about this way of loving, we study what the body is revealing. We come to know ourselves and God in a very special way. Our sexuality is, in a sense, a window to the soul.

Therefore, the study of our sexual powers is, in a sense, the practicum of the theology of the body and it reveals the profound mystery of the human person. This study is undertaken by the teachers and students in the NFP apostolate. NFP examines our fertility. It investigates our sexuality, the window to the soul. In the NFP classes, couples are taught about their own fertility. NFP is the knowledge of fertility. There is a distinction between knowledge of fertility and its application. Married couples may apply the knowledge of their fertility to plan their families, but this actually is responsible parenthood.

Since NFP is the study of our sexual powers, the window to the soul, NFP reveals the profound mystery of the human person. In studying their sexual powers, men and women will see the mystery which is expressed in and through these faculties. Men and women will perceive the dignity of the body and its sacramental value as a physical image of God. People will begin to respect the body and hold it in awe and reverence. NFP is the means to teach the world the incomparable dignity of the human body as the expression of the human person. When men and women understand the truth about themselves, they will be more inclined to act responsibly, i.e., in accordance with their truth and value. But it is impossible to act responsibly if one is unaware of the truth. NFP teaches the truth about fertility. As such, NFP, properly taught, will usually lead to virtue. The Church encourages its use as a means of developing a holy life. NFP has been elevated to an apostolate. It is the study of human fertility, of sexuality, which shows the individual that she or he is truly an image of God made to love as God loves. NFP probes the unchartered and infinite depths of each individual human person. It gives people a sense of their own worth and dignity.

2. Responsible Parenthood

As a relationship of love, marriage must have the five characteristics of divine love, and the bodies of the spouses must participate in the characteristics of divine love in so far as is possible. Each spouse must choose to give himself or herself to the other. The choice must be based on the recognition of the value and dignity of the spouse. The decision to give oneself to the other must be permanent and life-giving.

If even one of these five characteristics is missing, the spouses do not love each other. Clearly, the body cannot make a choice since it does not have a will. Further, it cannot recognize the value of another person because it does not have a mind. Lacking a will, the body cannot give itself. However, the body can share in the permanent characteristic of love because it can be given as a permanent gift until death. Our bodies do not require a series of partners over life as they require food. If God had created the human body to need a series of partners over a lifetime, there could be no permanent bodily gift to one other person. In this case, the physical union of two people in marriage would not be love because one of the necessary characteristics of love: permanence, would be missing from such a relationship.

The body also participates in the fifth characteristic of love: life. God has joined the physical expression of love between two married people to the creation of new human life. It must be this way if married love is truly to be love. God's love is always life-giving. If married love is to be truly love, it must be life-giving. The intimate physical gift of love between husband and wife includes the possibility of physical life. If this were not the case, the physical union of the two people in marriage would not be love. But the body does participate in the fifth characteristic of love: life. If the human body could not participate in this characteristic of love, husbands and wives would be using each other rather than loving each other. But God created us to imitate Him in his love and so the physical love of spouses is truly love because it is physically permanent and life-giving.

God allows married couples a unique participation in the power of creation. The animals reproduce, but their offspring are not persons. The angels do not give life to new angels. Only human persons can bring new embodied images of God into our world. Only human beings can give life to new unique persons of equal value to themselves. Each child is another expression of God in this world and will live for all eternity.

Nevertheless, God did not intend that every act of marital love should result in a new human person. There are only a few days in a woman's cycle when a pregnancy is possible. Further, God gave us a mind and a will so that we could cooperate with Him in the creation of a new human person: procreation. Responsible parenthood signifies the virtuous choice made by a married couple either to strive to procreate or to try to avoid conception.

Some people think that a decision by a couple to time their acts of love in order to space children using NFP is the same as the decision by a couple to avoid pregnancy through contraception. This is a confusion of purposes and means. The purpose may be the same, but the means are different. The NFP couple delaying another pregnancy and the contraceptive couple delaying a pregnancy are engaging in two radically different acts. The difference between the NFP couple and the contracepting couple is as wide as two men who decide to go to the bank to withdraw $100. The one who fills out a withdrawal slip and takes the money from his account is doing a totally different act from the other one who holds a gun to the teller and takes $100 in a robbery. The NFP couple, while engaging in non-procreative intercourse by making use of the infertile times, give themselves to each other totally and completely as they are at that moment. The contracepting couple withholds their fertility from each other in an anti-procreative act and do not give themselves totally. Remember, love is defined as a total self-gift. The NFP couple engages in an act of authentic love, while the contracepting couple does not, even if they think they are. It should be further noted that God never told married couples when they should make love. That is totally up to the couple. What He does say (through His act of creation in that we are called to love as He loves) is that when married couples love, they are to give themselves totally to one another. The NFP couple does that while knowing that they are infertile. The contracepting couple does not because they withhold their fertility from one another. Further, the contracepting couple alters either both their bodies or one of them and in so doing they violate the integrity of their own bodies.

There is a further difference, one in purpose. The contracepting couple while engaging in the marital act, has excluded procreation both physically and purposely (in their wills). Such a couple has said "No" to new life. The NFP couple has said to God, "We do not think this is the time, but if you wish a new life, we will accept that life." In this sense, the NFP couple making use of the infertile times have not excluded the (remote) possibility of procreation physically or purposely (in their wills). There is a radical difference in these intentions.

Couples who have developed a familial spirituality and who are acting responsibly in planning their families will always accept the potential for new life while engaging in the marital act. If a responsible couple has decided to avoid a pregnancy for a time by having recourse to the infertile periods only, they still have not excluded the possibility of procreation in their intentions (or physically). If a pregnancy should occur during these times, the couple will accept the child as a precious new life given to them by God. The Church's constant teaching is that the procreative purpose may never be excluded in the physical or intentional orders. While teaching that procreation can never be excluded, the Church also encourages responsible parenthood and the spacing of children through the application of fertility awareness.

It is clear that the NFP couple and the contracepting couple have different intentions while engaging in a specific marital act. However, some criticize those who use NFP with having a contraceptive mentality because they intend not to have children over the course of some months or years. In other words, even though each act is "ordained to the transmission of life" as Pope Paul VI insisted in his encyclical, On Human Life, Humanae Vitae (See no. 11.), still the NFP couple is criticized, even condemned, because, say the critics, their general intention is identical to the general intention of the contracepting couple. These critics are charging the NFP couple not with having the same specific intention in each marital act as the contracepting couple, but with having the same general intention as the contracepting couple. Intentions or thoughts can be sinful, e.g., the thought of hating someone to the point of wanting him dead, or worse, in hell for all eternity, is sinful. However, with regard to individual acts, e.g., acts of conjugal love by married partners, the Church never examines a general intention. Rather, it is always the specific act and the specific intentions which accompany the specific act which weigh as evidence in the judgment. In other words, an NFP couple may have some vague general intention about avoiding children for months or even years, but that does not matter. It is the specific intention which they both have when engaging in an act of love which either contributes to the virtue of the act or to its sinfulness. And, as we have seen, the specific intention of the NFP couple is not contraceptive. Therefore, the NFP couple does not have a contraceptive mentality.

This distinction between the general intention and the specific intention explains one of the effects of NFP on couples. Since the advent of modern NFP, pastoral practice has been to encourage couples to use NFP even if they did not have the most virtuous of general intentions. Pastors were pleased if an engaged couple agreed to use NFP and generally never addressed further the question of spacing children. It is the universal experience of the Church in the last twenty years all over the world that couples who began using NFP with the intention to exclude children in their marriage for a long time or to have only one or two, usually "change their minds." Pastors have often met couples whose marriages they witnessed years before who have five, six and even more children and often they are closely spaced. When asked, the couples who more often than not only wanted two and those widely spaced, will say: "We changed our minds." Partly this is attributable to their discovering through NFP that they are "fearfully and wonderfully made." (See Psalm 139:14.) They encountered their wonder and dignity by learning the theology of the body through the practice of NFP. But something else also is happening when couples "change their minds." The general intention (which might be called contraceptive) has given way to the series of specific intentions they had when they engaged in the marital act. Each marital act (with the proper intention, i.e., an openness to life ) weakened the general intention until it was conformed to the specific intentions accompanying each act. It is impossible to maintain a general intention towards something and continually act contrary to that general intention. Either the specific intentions will change to conform to the general intention or the general intention will change to conform to the specific intentions. When NFP is successfully and faithfully practiced, the initial general intention (which might be contraceptive) disappears in favor of the specific intention (openness to life). This is another way that NFP builds virtue. It is also the reason why pastors always encourage its use, even if the general intention of a couple is not the best at the beginning!

Nevertheless, how do couples decide on the spacing of children? In the past the magisterium has taught that couples, who have recourse to the infertile periods only, should have "serious reasons." (See Pope Paul VI, On Human Life, Humanae Vitae, no. 16.) However, in The Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, Familiaris Consortio, nos. 32 and 33, Pope John Paul II does not use the phrase "serious reasons" when speaking of responsible parenthood. Rather he sees the natural regulation of births as fidelity to "the Creator-person." (See John Paul II, "A Discipline That Ennobles Human Love," L'Osservatore Romano, [English Edition], [September 3, 1984], vol. 17, no. 36, no. 118 in the Theology of the Body series.) In another passage, the Holy Father writes that "responsible fatherhood and motherhood, understood integrally, is none other than an important element of all conjugal and family spirituality." (See John Paul II, "Sources of Spirituality For Married Couples," L'Osservatore Romano, [English Edition], [October 8, 1984], vol. 17, no. 41, no. 120 in the Theology of the Body series.) John Paul sees responsible parenthood as the fruit of a genuine familial spirituality, a familial holiness which is encouraged and developed through the theology of the body, NFP, and the theology of the family. Studying the profound mystery of the human person as an image of God both in his individual existence (theology of the body and NFP) and in the family, a reflection of the Trinity (theology of the family), spouses will come to know themselves and God. They will know the truth about themselves as images of God. They will come to know something of the profound love which God has for them. Spouses will realize that they are called to act as He does. They will strive to respond to each other and to God with the same love and fidelity which He shows them. Gradually, a familial spirituality will develop in the spouses. Responsible parenthood flows from this familial spirituality which is developed through knowledge of the truth about man and God (theology of the body, NFP, and the theology of the family). As in so many other areas, John Paul has elucidated and clarified what lay behind previous magisterial teaching on responsible parenthood. If the language of "serious reasons" has almost disappeared, it is because John Paul knows that these will exist as a matter of course if families respond to his challenge to learn the theology of the body, NFP, and the theology of the family.