Shae O'Brien is an English teacher, writer, wife, and mother to three beautiful girls. She takes life with a grain of salt and two spoonfuls of sugar! Please be sure to follow her on www.facebook.com/catholicmamablog.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Friendly Fire: When NFP is Questioned Within the Church

On my first post in celebration of National Natural Family Planning (NFP) Awareness Week (Why We Use NFP) I received a comment from a fellow Catholic woman stating that the Church is actually against the use of NFP (except in very rare circumstances). My heart dropped as I read the words and judgment (not without good intentions, mind you) of a fellow sister in my own faith. Yet it reminded me of the irony that tends to come with NFP--most often the opposition comes from within.

While most of America is boasting of the "war against women" being the Catholic Church vs. Contraception, there is an inner battle that is still being fought among the members of the Church itself. Natural Family Planning is the only form of "family planning" or "child spacing" allowed by the Catholic Church. That being said, there are many who believe it should not be used at all, unless in a rare circumstance of life or death. Much of this comes from a translation of an encyclical letter written by Pope Paul VII called Humanae Vitae, which discusses human life as it relates to married life and the conjugal act (sex).

The Mistranslation of Humanae Vitae

If you haven't read the entirety of Humanae Vitae yet, I highly suggest you do. It takes time and focus, but it is beautifully written and reflects the love and beauty of God, the Church, and marriage. It also serves as the main reference point for Catholics seeking an understanding of the Church's stance on intimacy and procreation in the eyes of God. Because of this, it is very important that we understand something that often goes unnoticed: there are two different translations of Humanae Vitae in use by the Church in America. One translations comes from Pauline Books and Media and the other comes from the Vatican itself. As an English teacher, I find it integral to recognize what the differences are in this text and how it affects the various attitudes of the body of our Church.

"Grave Motives" vs. "Serious Reasons"

The argument over whether or not Catholics should practice NFP is due to two very different understandings of Humanae Vitae. There is a catch phrase within Humanae Vitae that has promoted a large amount of judgment within the Catholic Church regarding NFP: "grave motives". It suggests that couples may only practice NFP when they have "grave motives" to do so. Except when I tried to find this phrase in the English translation of Humanae Vitae on the official Vatican website, it was not there. As it turns out, this is because the phrase comes from the translation of Humanae Vitae by Pauline Books and Media. In the official Vatican translation, the term used instead is "serious reasons". Is this really that big of a deal?

Well, let's take a look at some definitions.

adjective: grave; comparative adjective: graver; superlative adjective: gravest
  1. 1.
    giving cause for alarm; serious.
    "a matter of grave concern"

adjective: serious
  1. 1.
    (of a person) solemn or thoughtful in character or manner.
    "her face grew serious"
    • (of thought or discussion) careful or profound.
      "we give serious consideration to safety recommendations"

As you can see from these two definitions, we get two completely different feelings and understandings. With "grave", it offers an understanding of only being able to practice NFP if something is wrong or "gives cause for alarm". With "serious", we get a very different feeling of being able to practice NFP if we do so with "solemn", "thoughtful", or "careful" consideration as to our reasons. The main difference here is that the first word speaks to the reason itself while the second word speaks to the attitude of the couple considering practicing NFP.

Large Families vs. and Small Families

A difference in translations also lends to a difference in belief over what family size the Church promotes and supports. As many Catholics can attest, we are often expected by other Catholics and non-Catholics alike to have a large family. This can sadly become a bar to which any Catholic couple who is struggling to conceive may feel inadequate in their faith for not being able to reach. Let us go back to our two translations to see where the confusion sets in...

In relation to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth. 

This translation by Pauline Books and Media suggests that if a couple doesn't have a "grave motive" to avoid more children, then their other option is the "deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family". This particular translation makes me cringe when I think of the guilt and stress a Catholic couple may feel, whether constantly second guessing if their motives are grave enough or not using NFP out of fear of committing sin when they may actually need it.

With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time. 

In the Vatican's translation, suddenly this is changed from an "either/or" choice, to one of constant and careful thought throughout a marriage, which may transition from being ready to have more children to feeling the need to consider avoiding more children and back, as circumstances change and develop. Most important to point out is that in this translation, "prudently" replaces "deliberately" as to the manner in which a couple should move forward in the growth of their family, meaning that it shouldn't be assumed that one must purposefully have a large family but instead consider a large family by "showing care and thought for the future" in their discernment.

"Responsible Parenting"

The beautiful focus, regardless of translation, is the idea of "responsible parenting". This phrase demands of all of us, whether trying to conceive or avoid, to do so with serious consideration, prayer, and communication with one's spouse. It demands that we make the choice of procreation "with regard to physical, economic, psychological, and social conditions". It reminds us that marriage isn't meant to be careless or thoughtless, but instead a woven tapestry of reflection, prayer, discussion, and intimacy between two spouses to become one again and again. Finally, it also places consideration on the most important people in this equation, not ourselves but the children God has waiting for us.

How to use NFP in accordance with God's will

What does this mean for NFP, and for those who feel strongly about their translation or interpretation of Humanae Vitae? It means that we all have a duty to prudently and generously consider where God is leading us in our marriages. It means that some of us may determine that our family is meant to be small and others that ours are meant to continue to grow. It also means that some of us will avoid for a time, or indefinitely, with serious reason even though we may long for more children desperately, while others will intentionally try to conceive cycle after cycle to no avail. It means that because it takes work and communication and reflection of our moral precepts, we will need each other to remind us of the purpose, beauty, and calling of NFP and how we should regard it with respect to God's will in our lives.

Natural Family Planning is about the prudence and generosity of a married couple, and requires constant reflection on the focus and reasoning for that focus toward the future of their family. If you feel that now may be a good time to reflect on your own use of NFP, here are some questions that can assist you and your spouse in beginning that integral communication and prayer (and you are also welcome to check out My TTA Prayer of Discernment), so you may discern what God is calling you to do:

  • Have we adequately prepared our marriage and our circumstances to be able to care for any future children God may see fit to give us? 
  • How is our communication as a couple, in regards to our needs and desires, concerns and questions? Are we able to listen for understanding and support each other by finding answers together in accordance with God's will for our lives?
  • What health issues or concerns (physical or mental) do we have and would they best be addressed before considering another pregnancy?
  • Do either of us have a "serious reason", "grave motive", or "just cause" that we feel merits avoiding pregnancy at this time or indefinitely? What would need to change in this circumstance to allow for our family to grow again, if ever?
  • Is there a possible reason or motive that we are unsure merits avoiding pregnancy that would be better discerned by talking with our priest?
  • Is there a "serious reason" or "grave motive" that we feel may require us to avoid pregnancy, but we feel the desire to pursue pregnancy anyway? Would it help to clarify or discern further course of action by discussing this reason with our priest?

In regards to how we view, judge, or confront other Catholics' choice to use NFP, I hope we can focus our thoughts and contemplation on our own morals and actions instead. As I like to think of it, The point is, it is not our job to create bars where the Church has offered curves, to place judgment where the Church has offered allowance. That in no way serves God, the Church, each other, or ourselves. 

It reminds me of something teachers say often: "I am looking for your best, and your grade will reflect anything less than your best." In all reality, it is a way to promote purposeful reflection and effort from the student, but is not meant for students to start judging each other's work against their own idea of "best". Only the Teacher can, and should, determine that. The rest of us should be focused on helping our peers turn out the best work they can, which requires a spirit of love, acceptance, and understanding. NFP can only work properly if we do it with a heart of service...to God, our spouses, our family, and each other. 

May God truly bless you all in this holy endeavor.


  1. Thank you for posting this, it was wonderful!!

  2. I'm confused..The only response I can see being in any way likely to elicit this post in no way says that the Church is against NFP. I'm disturbed that you misrepresented her so completely. She reminds us that that Church permits NFP for serious reasons, relating some of her own, but encourages us not to celebrate those serious reasons. There is a huge difference between saying practicing NFP to avoid pregnancy is not the ideal state for a marriage (objectively, not personally) and saying that the Church is against it overall. You weaken your own credibility when you can't respond to the former without shifting it into the latter. And it saddens me that within the Church we can't have honest conversations, where women listen to each others words, instead of inserting the ones they expect to hear. How can we improve the culture if we won't even hear each other? Please, adjust your article to give a more honest representation of your reader's words. Your response will be stronger for it.

    1. Thank you for your response. I was referring to the following statement: "The teaching of the Catholic Church is that NFP should not be a matter of course...You know you can not use anything, to let nature take its course. As a matter of fact, it's preferred. NFP is not the norm. It is for serious and grave reasons. These are rare." She does indeed state that there are rare cases or exceptions, which is one form of understanding that I address in this post. But she does specifically state that "you know you can not use anything, to let nature take its course."

      I, in no way, wish to misrepresent her. She was very clear in her belief that NFP is not a rule supported by the Church but an exception to the rule. I would be happy to edit my post to state that, and I appreciate your reading both my post and her comments.

    2. I really appreciate your response! Thanks for taking the time to look it over and respond. I would recommend changing your language in the post. If I were her, or another reader of her opinion, I would read you introductory paragraph as proof you either did not understand or deliberately misrepresented my opinions..and I wouldn't read the rest of your post. Perhaps clarify that while she sees it's use in extreme circumstances are entirely acceptable, she does not believe the Church support the use of NFP as a matter of course, without serious reasons to support it.. I just have been feeling the tensions within the Church on this matter so very acutely this month, and I hope we can be careful with our words, as much as possible, to bring, if not harmony, at least a spirit of dialogue to the discussion! Thanks again for being willing to listen!


  3. Beautiful post. Thank you for this.