It should be obvious to anyone that the Catholic Church is in the agony of a great crisis. Despite genuine signs of renewal, make no mistake that Holy Mother Church continues to experience a dreadful decline in nearly every important indicia of spiritual and material health. While I am no pessimist, the worst is yet to come. The soft and widespread apostasy of my generation will turn into a hard and brutish one in the next. Truly, and without any hyperbole intended, Holy Mother Church stands on the precipice of its greatest threat to survival since Diocletian resolved to stamp out Christianity once and for all. But what makes this one so dire is that the threat is not only composed of a ruthless and diabolic enemy — it also comes at a time at which the faithful are simply not prepared to stand and fight for the Truth after two generations of being taught a caricature of the faith.
The Problem Stated:
Of all of the symptoms that demonstrate the disease in the Church, none does so more meaningfully than the decline of the Catholic family (and all families by extension). Obviously the proliferation of divorce has been a scourge upon the family and the Church, which will reverberate for generations to come. It goes without saying that the Church cannot begin to repair all that is wrong until it insists with the same vigour by which its founder declared marriage wholly indissoluble. Further, it must put an end to the practice of allowing easy annulments (which is, for the most part, an American phenomenon), which to the average layman represents little more than Catholic divorce.
the average household size in the United States has been steadily declining, from 3.27 in 1950 to 2.03 in 2000. In 1970, 21 percent of households had five or more people; in 2007 only 10 percent did. During that same time the square footage of the average U.S. home has more than doubled, though. Fifty years ago, many of those large families were Catholic, thanks to our Church’s prohibition of birth control. Now that Catholics regularly ignore that Church teaching, [Catholics] have about the same number of children as the average American family ["Family life: Is a fuller quiver really better?",Heidi Schlumpf, National Catholic Reporter, Jun. 25, 2010, criticising the large family movement].
The reduction in the Catholic family — indeed, all families — is undoubtedly due to rapid advance of artificial contraception. Taken together, "legalized" abortion and artificial contraception have formed a one-two punch to drive down family sizes much to the joy of modern-day Malthusians. The hyperbole of the so-called coming "population bomb" has been replaced instead by the dark and foreboding future of a demographic winter of aging populations, shuttered schools, and economies in ruins.
Holy Mother Church has taught from time immemorial that artificial contraception is unconditionally verboten. Stated forcefully as early as 1930, in response the Anglican Church's volte-face on artificial contraception, Pope Pius XI declared in his encyclical Casti Connubii that,
the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious (par. 54).
The Venerable Pope Pius XII pronounced against it as well:
[T[he fundamental law of the conjugal act and conjugal relations: that every attempt of either husband or wife in the performance of the conjugal act or in the development of its natural consequences which aims at depriving it of its inherent force and hinders the procreation of new life is immoral; and that no "indication" or need can convert an act which is intrinsically immoral into a moral and lawful one [Allocution to Midwives, Oct. 29, 1951].
Pope Paul VI, against the backdrop of considerable drama, again condemned artificial contraception in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. This encyclical was a blow to the liberal block of Churchmen who, following the liberalising winds of the Second Vatican Council, wished for the Church to adopt a permissive attitude towards artificial contraception. As is well-documented, many of these Church "leaders" initiated campaigns of schismatic defiance in the face of the Holy Father's teaching and, in the process, mortally wounded the traditional notions of Catholic obedience that had heretofore been customary in response to papal teaching. Moreover, those Church Fathers who accepted the 1968 reiteration of this teaching were considerably meeker in its defense than those heretical Church fathers who openly campaigned against it. Coupled with a general secularising trend during the 1960s, the avalanche of change sweeping Holy Mother Church and the widespread availability of contraceptives, the faithful — in fact, most of them — eventually began using artificial contraception in the same proportion as their secular counterparts.
The results of the pervasive Catholic acceptance of contraception has been calamitous on several fronts:
The prediction that a culture that embraced birth control would eventually sanction divorce, illegitimacy, adultery, fornication, pornography, homosexuality and abortion, was prophetic.
The mortal enemies of the Church have at their core an abiding hatred of humanity and the development of a method to limit human beings from ever being born was greeted by secularists everywhere with great joy. Initially they were the freakish minority advocating artificial contraception — something that virtually all people rejected as a grave danger to marriages and families. But the Margaret Sangers of the world grew in numbers such that today we who reject artificial contraception are the freaks — all in the name of progress and all in the blink of an eye of human history. While it difficult to imagine, consider that up to 1965, prior to the United States Supreme Court's ruling in Griswald v. Connecticut, many states criminalised artificial contraception and, by doing so, reflected the divine and natural law that such devices and chemicals are intrinsically evil. Less than fifty years later, evil has been redefined as good — to the point that our great leader wants all institutions, including Catholic ones, to subsidise this evil.
The Proposed Solution:
In the wake of the destructive onslaught against the family by a contraceptive anti-culture, Church leaders have groped for a solution in the post-Conciliar world. Consistent with the spirit of the Council, they have sought to strike a middle ground — one that meets modernity on at least some of its terms. They have conceded that there is something to the modernist objections that we have to be concerned about demographic growth, taxation of limited physical resources, the rights of women, and the social difficulties posed by feeding and educating too many children. As it related to the question of when and how often to bring children into the world, she seemed to agree that control over fertility was a good thing with the only caveat seeming to be that such control should not be obtained by the use of artificial means. Instead, modern Church leaders enlisted periodic continence (i.e., limiting conjugal relations to a woman's naturally occurring infertile periods) or "Natural Family Planning" (NFP) as the definitive counter-measure to oppose the ease and control afforded by artificial contraception.
The history of NFP cannot be divorced from artificial contraception. In the context of condemning birth control, Holy Mother Church has taught that NFP, as a dispensation from the normal relations between husband and wife, can be morally acceptable; the Venerable Pius XII in his Allocution to Midwives:
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.
Later in Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI reiterated that NFP was acceptable albeit again subject to certain moral qualifications. Obviously much as changed since 1968: What essentially began as qualified dispensation from normal marital relations and obligations has morphed in recent years into something very different in the minds of the Church leaders. A negative — that is, a permission to deviate from the norm for grave reasons, has been transformed into a positive.
Indeed, it is now fair to say that NFP has become a de facto teaching as the way in which married couples ought to relate to one another — a holy good in and of itself. According to current material published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), NFP "reflects the dignity of the human person within the context of marriage and family life, promotes openness to life, and recognizes the value of the child. By respecting the love-giving and life-giving natures of marriage, NFP can enrich the bond between husband and wife."
Our bishops promise a lot with regard to NFP:
In NFP both spouses are taught to understand the nature of fertility and work with it, either to plan a pregnancy or to avoid a pregnancy. Couples who use NFP soon learn that they have a shared responsibility for family planning. Husbands are encouraged to "tune into" their wives' cycles and both spouses are encouraged to speak openly and frankly about their sexual desires and their ideas on family size ... When couples understand the methods and are motivated to follow them, NFP is up to 99% successful in spacing or limiting births. [And who can avail themselves to NFP according to the USCCB?] Any married couple can use NFP!
There can be no question that NFP has eclipsed — at least from official diocesan sources — any other way that marriage and fecundity should be understood. Strident advocates go further by treating NFP as almost an Eleventh Commandment. In conjunction with Pope John Paul II's teachings on "Theology of the Body," NFP is styled in almost mystic terms as one of the greatest revelations regarding married life in the history of the Church. What you are more likely to hear at a real-world Catholic marriage preparation class is the following on the question of children — usually by a mature Catholic co-teaching married couple with a few children:
Catholicism does not require that you become parents of a large family — rather it wants you to be responsible parents. NFP offers you a reasonable alternative to artificial contraception: a way for you young couples to be responsible while not availing yourselves to drugs or devices that degrade your humanity. You should use these NFP techniques to grow closer, to communicate better, and prayerfully consider whether and when you should bring children into the world in a responsible manner. If that means that you need to delay — even permanently — having children, that is acceptable today with the use of NFP. And what's more, NFP is proven to be 99% effective for avoiding pregnancy — just as effective as the pill.
Why Natural Family Planning Has Failed
While NFP, if used properly, is undoubtedly a licit dispensation according to Holy Mother Church, its use as an affirmative counter-cultural movement has been a spectacular failure for a variety of reasons. Polling data confirms the anecdotal: Catholics use contraception at very high rates and evidently have little moral qualms about it. If results matter, and they should, NFP as a movement has utterly failed in its intended mission to present a viable alternative to a contraception-crazed world.
Why should that be? Because by emphasising the exception and what essentially is a negative — as opposed to the rule and what is essentially the positive — we have given unnecessary credence to the contraception zealots. By conceding the argument that we should be "responsible" parents — impliedly by limiting the occasion of our parenthood for whatever good that comes to mind — we have conceded our very best and even divine argument that Christians should bear the burden of sacrificing for large families and, paradoxically, find much greater joy here and now because of it. Instead of attacking the banality of the contraceptive concept of "responsible" parenthood by juxtaposing it with "heroic" Christian parenthood, we lost the battle before it ever began by essentially advertising "contraception-light" as a way to keep up with the Joneses.
The emphasis on NFP as a positive has created a creeping contraceptive mentality that is suspicious of grace and faith. NFP is ultimately distilled to the faithful as a natural way to obtain the same results as our contracepting neighbours — a couple of kids, jobs for mum and dad, two new cars, a vacation to Disneyland and a white picket fence — albeit wrapped in a soft and cosy mantra of "prayerful consideration." One has to ask why the discovery of "responsible parenthood" and the wonders of NFP have been revealed during only the second half of the twentieth century — and in first-world countries at that? Historically speaking, there have never been fewer grave reasons not to have children as there are in the United States today given its sheer material and economic wealth. One cannot help wondering whether NFP has been devised precisely in response to the ennui and selfishness of that rich culture in the first instance: i.e., only in cultures like the decadent post-Christian West could NFP have even been dreamed up as a positive development.
I read recently that an NFP advocate made a vociferous objection to the entire notion that NFP can be used with a so-called "contraceptive mentality." His point was something like this: NFP can never be said to have a "contraceptive mentality" because, by definition, it does not distort or do violence to any natural marital powers. I thought hard about it but realised at the end that this argument was sophistry. What critics of NFP zealotry mean by "contraceptive mentality" is that people — many people — use NFP as the practical substitute for contraception to avoid children altogether while still enjoying the sensual pleasures of marital relations. Truly it is a form of conjugal bulimia. While NFP brings you to a place without children in a markedly different manner, it nonetheless still brings you there.
Another critical problem is that NFP, as taught in the real world, has become effectively divorced from the qualification that it should be used only for serious and grave reasons. Setting aside the debate on precisely what constitutes "justae causae," it certainly means something important and serious. But the USCCB's webpage on "What NFP is" makes no mention that it should be used only by married couples with serious reasons for avoiding children. That the moral qualification of using NFP would be obliterated in practice follows squarely from the fact that NFP has been styled as a good — and goods, properly understood, should not require moral qualifications for their use. Put another way, if NFP heals marriages, makes us better spouses and parents and contributes to the wellbeing of the planet, why should it be limited only those spouses who have grave reasons? Why should it be limited for any reason at all? By reading grave and serious reasons out of the equation, the dispensational aspect of NFP — and thus NFP itself — has become distorted beyond recognition.
A corollary principle that follows from ignoring the moral requirements of availing oneself to NFP is that our rightly ordered disposition towards it — and childbearing — have been inverted. Because NFP advocates treat NFP as a good without qualification, couples are encouraged to view using NFP as a positive part of their conjugal lives. But Catholic couples ought to feel a sorrow by having the necessity to resort to NFP. By analogy, NFP is a type of bankruptcy in a technical sense. Bankruptcy is also a legal dispensation — from our lawful debts. Bankruptcy also should be used for serious and grave reasons. While we should not judge the bankrupt or cloak him in shame, we should not celebrate him or the dispensation either. NFP is similar: for grave and serious reasons, we cannot fulfill our obligations to be totally open to children (for a time or permanently) — we should not celebrate this as a good thing but rather endure it.
Another problem with NFP in practice is its vulgarity: its pedestrian treatment of something intimate, something exalted, something requiring modesty tends to desacralize marital relations. Must engaged Catholic couples be subjected — in a room full of others — to the science of a charting the appearance of cervical mucus and vaginal discharge? Must they discuss what one hopes is their future sexual life in the midst of strangers? One would think that in an age awash in the publicity of base sexual themes, images and conversation that the Church would stand as a redoubt for a faithful besieged. Count me as one of the few, I suppose, who does not believe that the assiduous monitoring of my wife's menstrual cycle — and discussing it in mixed company — will make me a better communicator or husband. Nor do I believe that my keen understanding of her fallow times will bring us any closer. If I sound prudish, perhaps I am, but others have seen in this type of forced public discussion of sex and the science behind it as the risk of vulgarising the holy. In the words of the great Alice von Hildebrand:
That the intimate sphere should be treated with reverence necessarily affects the way we speak about it, and this concerns educators, in a particular way, since they must adapt their speech to the needs of their hearers. How is one to address individuals who have been so influenced by the vulgarity of our age? How can one teach them to view love and sexuality in an exalted and reverent way? .... This is the reason, I believe, the sacredness of sex is so often addressed by using a vocabulary which makes it impossible to have the reverence called for. This is why people feel perfectly comfortable discussing personal and intimate matters in public — matters, which, by their very nature, call for tremendous discretion.
It has even reached the point in some quarters that those who simply trust in God with respect to their family size families are dismissed as "Providentialists" and examples of irresponsible parenthood. Consider well-known, self-professed expert on "Theology of the Body" Christopher West's take on this very topic: "An example of one such error is the 'hyper-pious' notion that if couples really trusted in providence, they would never seek to avoid a child. This simply is not the teaching of the Church."
How someone can dismiss as "hyper-pious" the aspiration of a simple faith and trust in God when it comes to a Catholic family's decision to be totally open to children is representative of how distorted NFP has become. It is in practice irretrievably at odds — and represents a rupture — with that which came before.
Taken together, NFP was bound to fail the task for which it was enlisted. As essentially a negation, it cannot serve as an adequate rejoinder to the promises made by the contraceptive anti-culture. We have to stop pretending that an "us-too" alternative to the contraceptive anti-culture will work: instead, we have to offer a different way, an abundant way, a startling way.
The Solution Stated:
I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly.- Jn 10:10
Imagine for a moment if the Church had not embraced NFP as its rallying cry and instead treated it delicately as something that should be reserved for atypical and serious circumstances. Instead, the Church taught unflinchingly that Catholics should be unreservedly open to life and, accordingly, that healthy couples should reasonably expect to have six or eight or even ten children. Moreover, so-called "Providentialists" would be celebrated as examples of Christian piety much in the same way that the Venerable Pius XII lauded them in 1951. This would be a teaching to live for: an affirmative exclamation point on the Gospel of Life.
Simply stated, the idea of "responsible parenthood" sells the faith short and is pregnant (pardon the pun) with concepts that are inconsistent with Catholic heroism. We should not settle for "responsible parenthood" but aspire for "heroic parenthood." Our Lord did not come so that we may have a dispensation or a life centred around infertility: he came for us to have an abundant life. That is ultimately why people convert to Christianity: to have the abundant life in truth — without compromise, without vacillation, and without fear.
Ironically enough, "abundant" means plentiful and abounding; and an abundant family life undoubtedly includes plentiful and bounding children. If you have spent any time with large devout families, you would realize several things. First, they are generally speaking a mess — kids everywhere, parents frazzled, shoes missing, beds unmade, ball in the house, and milk spilled in the kitchen. Second, they are generally happy — the insanity of the moment is often punctuated with laughter, with tears of a variety of milestones and accomplishments, with a plethora of hugs and kisses, and the wonder of life at its passing stages. Third, they learn to live with less — in less space and with less money and less control — than their smaller family counterparts. To be sure, there is nothing magical about large families — they are not holier than other families merely because of their numbers and many families are not large because of miscarriages or serious issues. But large families, and I mean conventionally today, families with five or more children, are a rare Catholic sight. This should be a great lament.
More than any other visible social institution, large Catholic families contradict all of the ill-conceived assumptions of modernity. They are, as it were, a collective middle finger to an anti-culture that would tell us that God is dead, that man and life are worthless, and that it would be better if we were never born. The shining radiance and exuberance of large families is a living, breathing rejoinder to the dour and childless chorus. But large families are more than a counter-cultural expression, they epitomise Catholicism in practice because the parents are blessed by living out their married vocation in the fullest sense. God's blessing of children and fecundity itself seems to be a forgotten part of this debate — consider the eleventh paragraph of Pius XI's Casti Connubii:
Thus amongst the blessings of marriage, the child holds the first place. And indeed the Creator of the human race Himself, Who in His goodness wishes to use men as His helpers in the propagation of life, taught this when, instituting marriage in Paradise, He said to our first parents, and through them to all future spouses: "Increase and multiply, and fill the earth." As St. Augustine admirably deduces from the words of the holy Apostle Saint Paul to Timothy when he says: "The Apostle himself is therefore a witness that marriage is for the sake of generation: 'I wish,' he says, 'young girls to marry.' And, as if someone said to him, 'Why?,' he immediately adds: 'To bear children, to be mothers of families'."
Early Christians did not evangelise the world by offering half-measures, dispensations or mind-numbing dialogue: with God's grace, they lived life abundantly and declared the singularly salvific power of Jesus Christ. An unhappy and confused world around them saw their joy and wanted to know more — it was not by intellectual or moral arguments that Christianity set the world on fire but rather the faithful's bold and abiding love of life and God that was a palpable contradiction to a selfish and miserable world.
We live in a world that it is more unhappy and more confused. We have an answer to those who would maintain that life should be little more than a titillated distraction before rotting into nothingness: they are a death people that want to organize society around preventing babies, killing babies, killing disabled people, and killing old people. Their world is a more than a social malaise: it is gripped by despair and thirsting for living waters. We have to offer the living waters of the Gospel; we are a life people and nothing communicates our trust in God, our love of life, our belief in each other than our unconditional embrace of children. The world will be re-converted by such families.
While it would be virtually unthinkable that a diocesan marriage preparation program might say something as follows, we can still dream:
For you young Catholic people who are marrying in your twenties, you can expect, God willing and absent a physical impairment or grave reason, to have a home filled with many children. You should mentally, physically and spiritually prepare for seven, eight, nine or more children given your ages. You should be prepared to accept the hardships that come with having a large family for two important reasons: children please our Lord and your cooperation with the Lord in bringing forth new souls will in turn please our God, which will bring you many graces. Second, having a large family will help you be saved, it will re-focus your attention from the material attachments that are both rampant today and hazardous to your eternal destination. Your many children will help you to become better and holier people and will stand as a contradiction to a world that has forgot how live the abundant life. You, and your large faithful families, will turn the tide against the scoffers and misanthropes who would revile God's creation and man's place in it. We cannot promise you it will be easy because it won't, but if you persevere in prayer and virtue, you will overcome with God's grace. And should you live to see your children's children, you will praise God all the more that he saw fit to give you the gift of faith.
Have life and have it abundantly — have children.