I’ve often noticed that one of the main objections to Natural Family Planning comes from very committed Catholics themselves. They look on NFP with a faint air of suspicion and say something like: “I don’t really practice NFP because I leave it all up to God.”
When we first got married this is pretty much what we decided to do. We hoped for two children very close together and decided we wouldn’t look into NFP until after our second child.
Although there was nothing wrong with this, looking back I think we really missed out. Reading Love and Responsibility by Pope John Paul II clarified many things for us in our marriage. We tried reading it during our engagement and frankly found it incomprehensible. The language is very philosophical and I always find that unless I can think of a real-life example to which a philosophical idea applies, it just doesn’t stick in my mind.
After two years of marriage we were in Sicily for our Summer holidays and had an extremely unusual week of rain. When it rains in Italy everybody just stays in the house and the boredom was intense, so we started re-readingLove and Responsibility. There were some real eureka moments because now we could relate the philosophy to our lived experience.
This was particularly true where John Paul II speaks about what it means to be a co-creator with God of our children. He says that when animals mate they do so for procreation, but it is an instinctive act rather than an act of will. Human beings on the other hand have an intellect and a soul and therefore free will, so their actions are of a different order. When a married couple come together they exercise that free will. When they give their intellectual assent to the possibility of remaining pregnant, they become co-creators with God of a new life. This assent is difficult to maintain in a general way and becomes clearer and more meaningful when we know with precision what is happening during the woman’s cycle.
In order to emphasise this John Paul II turns received wisdom about NFP on its head and gives us what I believe is the correct perspective. He says that the cycle of fertility and infertility has not been given to us by God so that we can know when not to conceive but rather, has been given to us primarily to know with precision when we can conceive… To see it from this perspective is to exorcise NFP of the contraceptive mentality. Too many Catholics think that NFP is acceptable for the Church because it ‘doesn’t work very well’ and every time it fails God’s will comes into play. I can’t help feeling that is a rather reductive view of our dignity as intelligent beings and of God’s will that he should want to act in our life through mistakes, chance or ignorance, how much better it is when we invite him to act with our whole being.
NFP is not therefore primarily about spacing children, rather it is about joyfully and excitedly, with full intellectual and spiritual consent approaching that moment when as a couple you pray: “Father in heaven, today we come together as husband and wife, open to becoming co-creators with you of a new life. Thy will be done!”
The marital act in those moments when we had discerned that it was time to have another child took on a completely different dimension. Something of a different order than the ‘generally open to life’ situation we lived in the early years of our marriage.
God wants us to be involved physically, spiritually and intellectually in this act of co-creation and NFP allows that to be lived to the full.