One of the things I have noticed as I live my life and observe what is going on in the world is that so many Catholics seem to have lost or do not give enough emphasis to, the supernatural life. We are created to live eternally with our Father in Heaven. This supernatural outlook should influence how we live our lives and how we view this sad world we live in with all its troubles and complications.
I was reminded of this very recently. I received a phone call a couple of weeks ago to tell me that a dear priest friend, who has been a wonderful guide to our family over many years, had been admitted to hospital with pneumonia. He is almost eighty-nine years of age and I was aware that his time on this earth is not long. My wife and I decided to make a trip to see him in hospital, a journey of almost an hour. When we arrived at his bedside, he was looking very frail and he had a woolly hat pulled down over his eyes. I quietly whispered his name but there was no response.
I then remembered that he has very poor hearing, so I gently touched his hand and called his name again. He lifted his hat and looked at us seemingly confused, and then a broad smile came to his face. He was delighted to see us and wondered how we had heard that he was in hospital. He enquired after our eight children and asked us to write down their names. He remembered that one of our children has strayed from the faith and he asked us to make a note of this beside where we had written her name so that he can pray especially for her.
I had to speak with a slightly raised voice and quite close to his ear for him to be able to hear me, so I asked him how he was. He paused to reflect and then he said, “thank God I am in a state of grace” and then he told us to make sure that we tell our children how important it is to be in a state of grace. He said that education, work and other things are important but the only thing that really matters in their lives is that they remain in a state of grace for then they will get to Heaven.
Notice that there was no mention of his health or of any discomfort or pain he may be suffering, his focus was on eternity. He too realises that his time on this earth is short and that he will soon stand before Christ for his particular judgement.
On another occasion many years ago, my wife called to see this priest. She had already given birth to six children by caesarean section and once again she felt a growing longing in her heart and soul to bring another child into the world for Christ. She knew what the medical professionals’ thoughts were and so decided to call on this priest to seek out his advice given the risks involved. When she told him of her desire, he replied simply, “Naomi, so few even know how to say the Our Father”.
Once again, his focus was on the supernatural life and the primary end of marriage which is to bring souls into the world and to teach them to love and serve God so that they can give glory to Him for all eternity. My wife went on to have two more children after this visit.
Before we left the hospital, the priest said that he would love to pray the Rosary with us and so there, in a hospital that is growing ever more secular and may soon be performing abortions if it has not already begun doing so, we prayed the Rosary out loud (for Father is quite deaf) and the grace of God flowed through the hospital for all who were prepared to receive it, and for those who needed it most. We came away filled with a quiet peace, sad that we will not be seeing much more of our friend in this life, but glad to have one more treasured memory of his priestly ministry to us and our family.
This supernatural outlook is also reflected in a book that was recently recommended to me by a trusted priest friend. The book is by Mrs Jeanne Dvorak and is called “Natural Family Planning and the Christian Moral Code”. Mrs Dvorak examines the case that is made in favour of Catholics using NFP to avoid conception and questions the morality of this position.
I myself have always had a problem with those Catholics who promote NFP by saying that it is just as effective as, and even better than, most forms of artificial contraception. Why would you make a comparison with something that is intrinsically evil and say that what you are proposing as an alternative is just as effective as the evil practices? Imagine if someone were to try to present a moral alternative that is just as effective as euthanasia in ending the life of an elderly relative. You wouldn’t accept such an argument and yet this is the type of argument that is commonly presented by well-meaning Catholics to support the use of NFP.
One of the major difficulties that arises in discussing the moral legitimacy or otherwise of NFP is that, if NFP is immoral, then several recent popes have been wrong on this issue. Another difficulty is that some who promote the position that NFP is always immoral are sedevacantists believing that there has been no legitimate Pope since Pope Pius XII. These two difficulties tend to distract from the issue at hand which concerns the moral legitimacy or otherwise of engaging in marital relations with the specific intention of avoiding conception. Note well that there is a ‘specific intention’ to avail of one of the goods of marriage whilst avoiding its natural consequences.
Regarding the two difficulties just stated above, both difficulties stem from an erroneous belief that a Pope cannot make erroneous pronouncements in matters of doctrine. This is not what the Catholic Church teaches, rather, she teaches that a Pope cannot bind Catholics to profess belief in a doctrinal error. In my last article there was a quote from Saint John Henry Newman which pointed out that most of the Catholic episcopate of the fourth century, including the Pope, were promoting and upholding a doctrinal error during the Arian crisis.
In the case of the former difficulty, certain Catholics believe that we must accept everything that a Pope writes in an encyclical, an apostolic exhortation or other writings, and these Catholics are in danger of being led into error themselves, if they follow a Pope who is promoting error. In the case of the latter difficulty, certain Catholics, again erroneously believing that a Pope can never promote doctrinal error, and realising that a certain papal document seems to contain just such a doctrinal error, claim that the man who wrote the document is therefore not the Pope, thus sedevacantism, the chair of Peter is empty.
We can avoid both errors by realising that the Pope is not some sort of a god who cannot err, and by looking at the teaching in question in the light of Sacred Scripture, tradition and the previous magisterial teachings of the Popes. This is what Mrs Jeanne Dvorak does in her little booklet. Her claim is that the use of the marital act with the specific purpose of avoiding conception, would seem to be contrary to God’s purpose as stated in Sacred Scripture, in the constant teachings of the Catholic Church, and in the writings of previous popes, most notably Pope Pius XI in his encyclical ‘Casti Connubii’ of 1930 where he said.
“First consideration is due to the offspring, which many have the boldness to call the disagreeable burden of matrimony and which they say is to be carefully avoided by married people not through virtuous continence (which Christian law permits in matrimony when both parties consent) but by frustrating the marriage act. Some justify this criminal abuse on the ground that they are weary of children and wish to gratify their desires without their consequent burden. Others say that they cannot on the one hand remain continent nor on the other can they have children because of the difficulties whether on the part of the mother or on the part of family circumstances.
But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, 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.” (Casti Connubii 53 – 54)
Those who advocate in favour of NFP for avoiding conception, interpret the term ‘natural’ as meaning ‘not artificial’. But this is not necessarily a correct interpretation, for just because something is natural does not necessarily mean that it is good. Imagine a man who suffers from a severe allergy to a certain natural food which would end his life were he to consume it. We would hardly excuse someone who wished to harm this man and who deliberately gave him some of the food to which he was allergic, on account of the fact that the method they chose was natural as opposed to using an artificial method such as a gun to harm the man.
In the book of Genesis, Sacred Scripture gives us the first words God spoke to Man and Woman.
“And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them. And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth…” (Genesis 1:27-28)
Here we learn the primary end of marriage and of our human sexuality which is to multiply and to fill the earth with children to be raised for the eternal Kingdom of God. It is from this scriptural passage that Catholic Church teaching on human sexuality develops and has its moral basis. On what grounds then can it be claimed that it is permissible to act against this command by deliberately avoiding conception whilst engaging in the marital act?
There are of course cases where it is inadvisable for a married woman to become pregnant on account of her health. But in the case where the danger to the woman’s health is unavoidable, the only morally acceptable course of action is continence, for it would be sinful to endanger the life of one’s spouse in order to avail of the secondary ends of marriage.
Another reason that is put forward to justify the use of NFP is poverty. But again, this attitude would seem to show a certain lack of faith in God, who has promised, that those who seek first His Kingdom will be provided for. He says this after telling the apostles not to worry about food, or clothing.
“Therefore I say to you, be not solicitous for your life, what you shall eat, nor for your body, what you shall put on. Is not the life more than the meat: and the body more than the raiment? Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap, nor gather into barns: and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not you of much more value than they? And which of you by taking thought, can add to his stature by one cubit?
And for raiment why are you solicitous? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin. But I say to you, that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these. And if the grass of the field, which is to day, and to morrow is cast into the oven, God doth so clothe: how much more you, O ye of little faith?
Be not solicitous therefore, saying, What shall we eat: or what shall we drink, or wherewith shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the heathens seek. For your Father knoweth that you have need of all these things. Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you. Be not therefore solicitous for tomorrow; for the morrow will be solicitous for itself. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:25-34)
God calls us to have a supernatural outlook and to trust in Him to provide for our needs whilst we seek first His Kingdom. Christ also tells us that His Kingdom is not of this earth, it is a Heavenly Kingdom to which mankind has been invited.
It can be argued that the widespread promotion of NFP in Catholic circles has undermined the supernatural aspect of matrimony where a married couple, taking seriously their marriage vows where they agreed to ‘willingly accept the children that God sends’, thereby trust in God to decide how many children they shall have and trust in His providence to assist them in providing for those children.
It can also be argued that the widespread promotion of NFP has led to a certain unchastity within marriage where the secondary ends of human sexuality are deliberately elevated above the primary end.
In times past, it was a somewhat common practice for married couples to abstain from the marital act during Lent and Advent. Their primary purpose was not to avoid conception, but to raise their hearts and minds to God in increased prayer and to offer their abstention from the legitimate goods of marriage as a sacrifice in reparation for sin and as a preparation for Christmas and Easter. This is the legitimate consensual continence which Pope Pius XI refers to in Casti Connubii.
In the Spiritual exercises of St Ignatius, we learn some rules for the discernment of spirits. In the fourth rule for the second week we read the following about the evil angel.
“It is proper to the evil Angel, who forms himself under the appearance of an angel of light, to enter with the devout soul and go out with himself: that is to say, to bring good and holy thoughts, conformable to such just soul, and then little by little he aims at coming out drawing the soul to his covert deceits and perverse intentions.”
Is it possible that the promotion of NFP to avoid conception is a trick of the devil used in order to lead devout Catholics, who would never countenance contraception, astray?
I am interested in hearing from other Catholics on this subject as it goes to the core of married life which is under such sustained attack in our time and I hope to write more about this in the next issue looking at how the widespread acceptance of NFP has come about within the Catholic Church.
May God bless you