Friday, July 14, 2006

Periodic Continence and NFP

I saw an article mentioned on the Insight Scoop which is a blog for Ignatius Press authors and staff. The article "NFP: A Defense and an Explanation" by Mr. Thoams Storck appeared in the Homiletics and Pastoral Review July 2006 issue. The article takes aim at the issue of whether serious reasons are needed to use Natural Family Planning (NFP) or similar methods in order to space children or delay pregnancies.

I do not take issue with Mr. Storck's presentation of NFP and whether the Magisterium offers some teaching regarding NFP. My criticism as I continued to think about it concerns much more with Mr. Storck's presumption that when the Church has talked about using methods to regulate the birth of children, it speaks of NFP. Indeed the praise that Mr. Storck lavishes on NFP from magisterial documents appears to be praise for the practice of periodic continence. Certainly, NFP contains periodic continence but I think its emphasis is a bit different than taking up periodic continence. Below, I have copied what I wrote as a comment on the Insight Scoop blog. I may add or change elements to make things more clear but I think the points I make in this long comment are valid and worth pondering.

I do want to make one comment regarding my first main point in this comment below. I think I may have over-stated the case in the manner that I do. I do not think Mr. Storck gives a particular impression of NFP. Rather I think I take a more general impression I get from those think that NFP means having conjugal intercourse during infertile times to avoid a possible pregnancy. I do apologize for this over-statement and I believe the point remains valid to some extent because of the impression that NFP generally has.

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Thanks for the link to that interesting article. Just from my two readings of it, I wish that Mr. Storck had made one important observation concerning NFP, a better reading of Familiaris Consortio and the Catechism as well as a better understanding regarding the ends of marriage.

The article, I think, leaves a wrong impression about the method of NFP in one respect and that is where an observation about NFP is necessary. NFP is not just about having conjugal intercourse during infertile periods, it is also about restricting sexual activity to such times. This really leads to where the Church praises about the use of infertile times. The couple learns to share in the virtue of continence in which they offer up and sacrifice conjugal relations for the good of the family, health of the spouses, or whatever is the just reason for the use of NFP. Periodic continence is thus a praiseworthy element of NFP (as we shall see in Familiaris Consortio and in the Catehcism, even Pius XII's Address to Midwives which Mr. Storck quotes, has a section entitled 'the Heroism of Continence'). It takes a mastery of the self on the part of both spouses to offer up this sacrifice.

And this observation leads me into my criticism of his reading of Familiaris Consortio in which he misses John Paul II's account of following the natural cycle of the woman's body. Mr. Storck seems to glide right past the part concerning "self-control" which he quotes in his article. It is not so much the ability to have conjugal intercourse within infertile times that builds up the marriage, but rather the ascetical practice of not having conjugal intercourse that provides a growing intimacy which deepens the bonds of marriage and love. You can practice periodic continence without resorting to NFP. Indeed, periodic continence is an important theme in this regard as you see in paragraph 33 of Familiaris Consortio:
But the necessary conditions also include knowledge of the bodily aspect and the body's rhythms of fertility. Accordingly, every effort must be made to render such knowledge accessible to all married people and also to young adults before marriage, through clear, timely and serious instruction and education given by married couples, doctors and experts. Knowledge must then lead to education in self control: hence the absolute necessity for the virtue of chastity and for permanent education in it. In the Christian view, chastily by no means signifies rejection of human sexuality or lack of esteem for it: rather it signifies spiritual energy capable of defending love from the perils of selfishness and aggressiveness, and able to advance it towards its full realization.

With deeply wise and loving intuition, Paul VI was only voicing the experience of many married couples when he wrote in his Encyclical: "To dominate instinct by means of one's reason and free will undoubtedly requires ascetical practices, so that the affective manifestations of conjugal life may observe the correct order, in particular with regard to the observance of periodic continence. Yet this discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value. It demands continual effort, yet, thanks to its beneficent influence, husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace, and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention for one's partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love, and deepens their sense of responsibility. By its means, parents acquire the capacity of having a deeper and more efficacious influence in the education of their offspring.
So it is not so much NFP that is praiseworthy itself but rather the emphasis is on the periodic continence that is a part of NFP. The Catechsim continues this point with paragraph 2370: "Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom." So the use of infertile periods really speaks to the practice of continence which is a part of NFP but not all of NFP.

Next, Mr. Storck continually refers to the procreation and education of children as being the primary end of marriage; thus he relegates the mutual love between the spouses as a "secondary end." Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has abandoned the usage of primary and secondary ends. To reference them otherwise is a mistatement of the Church's official teaching. Gaudium et spes paragraph 50 does not make reference to the primary/secondary distinction. It makes the two ends on a more even level. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not make reference to this primary/secondary distinction.

Lastly, I want to end with a beautiful section from Pius XII Address to Midwives. It speaks of periodic continence and its possibility within marriage because I feel that is where the Church's praise really lies:
"God does not oblige anyone to do what is impossible. But God obliges husband and wife to abstinence if their union cannot be completed according to the laws of nature. Therefore in this case abstinence is possible." To confirm this argument, there can be brought forward the doctrine of the Council of Trent, which, in the chapter on the observance necessary and possible of referring to a passage of St. Augustine, teaches: "God does not command the impossible but while He commands, He warns you to do what you can and to ask for the grace for what you cannot do and He helps you so that you may be able".
I hope I have been clear. I have re-written this several times and made dozens of corrections and deletions. I hope my comments are not out of place. I hope they clarify things instead.

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