“Who can say there are too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.” —St. Teresa of Calcutta
I recently heard one of those knock-your-soul’s-socks-off kind of homilies by a “real-deal” priest who said there once was a man whose grandfather was the son of a 19th child, his father was the son of a tenth child, and his mother was the daughter of 11th child.
“If anyone of his ancestors for the last 150 years had used Natural Family Planning (NFP) needlessly, and did not embrace their cross and do their duty generously before God, this man's soul wouldn't be in existence today.” He then talked about how this man is actually himself, and if anyone asked him if he was glad he existed, he would say “yes.” He explains that if his ancestors had used NFP, at least four generations of his family wouldn't be in existence, and that there were many vocations to the priesthood and the religious life that came out of those families.
NFP that is used without grave reasons “can lead to the loss of souls, and not just in hell,” he claims. Is he right? And if he is, how should we good Catholic married people take his words to heart?
His comments can come across as outdated or even harsh to many who have grown comfy with the routine use of NFP in marriage so prevalent nowadays. However, perhaps his comments aren't what they may seem to be at first. Perhaps they are actually based on Holy Mother the Church’s teachings, as well as Church documents produced throughout history. Perhaps they are the truth of God's love unraveled – a sort of lighthouse for those looking for insight, and a gift to be opened and savored.
Servant of God Fr. John Hardon, S.J., speaks eloquently on this subject in one of his volumes of moral theology:
Generally, though, rhythm [an early form of Natural Family Planning] is used to avoid or postpone pregnancy, and then the reasons must be correspondingly more demanding. Apart from these reasons, the exclusive use of the so-called "safe period" over a long space of time is sinful.
What are these serious reasons which justify the temporary or prolonged practice of rhythm? They were spelled out by Pius XII in a famous address he gave to the Catholic Union of Midwives in 1951. “There are serious motives,” the Pope said, “such as those arising from what are termed medical, eugenic, economic and social 'indications,' that can exempt for a long time, perhaps even the whole duration of the marriage, from the positive and obligatory carrying out of the act... Further specified, the medical reasons might be that childbirth would be dangerous or that one of the parents is too ill to help in the rearing of children. Eugenic reasons might be the real likelihood of mental abnormality or serious hereditary defect in children, or mental weakness on the part of the parents. Social reasons could be the lack of housing facilities, overcrowding, the husband's employment in a public office, such as military service, which is at least partially incompatible with sound family life.”
Lastly, according to my “real-deal” priest friend, claiming “economic reasons” to use NFP while living in an affluent country such as ours requires a couple to be “brutally honest” in regards to their priorities in life.
This being said, Servant of God Fr. Hardon calls upon us to look at the inherently noble, awe-inspiring blessing behind a married couples’ opportunity to be co-creators with Almighty God:
Granted that a couple might avoid sin if they practice rhythm, yet they should often be counseled that it would be better and more pleasing to God if they continued to build their family and placed their trust in divine Providence. Instead of taking their cue from the non-Christian world around them, they may be advised to follow a profound instinct of the spirit and do more than their minimal share in rearing children for the faith on earth and for eternal happiness in the life to come. Finally Catholics are asked to bear in mind that they are the salt of the earth, whose example of a selfless married love is badly needed by millions for whom marriage is anything but a life of sacrifice and obedience to the will of God...
As our merciful father in faith, Fr. Hardon reminds us not to let our good and natural desire to procreate by smothered by the smog of the modern world's ways:
On the other hand, it is possible for Catholics to be swept along with the tide and seriously to look upon rhythm as a kind of ‘Catholic birth control:’ They may forget that birth control is the abuse, periodic continence is the non-use, of conjugal rights. A frank statement of the Catholic attitude was expressed by the former Secretary of State under Pius XII, and one who knew the Pope's mind as perhaps no one else on the subject. He was critical of those, including priests and teachers, who talk about rhythm as though it were the normal thing to do. We may wonder if nowadays too much interest is not shown in this question (of periodic continence) and if, in this way, we are not trying rather to encourage the limitation of births than their natural coming to light.
He also encourages us to be bold in our openness to showering the earth with the radiantly beautiful, precious “flowers” that St. Teresa of Calcutta speaks of when she says, “How can there be too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.”
We should speak more about their increase and less about their limitation. Too often selfishness tries to justify the reasons for limitation. And yet selfishness is what extinguishes life, fertility and love. We should like to see the Catholic family do its utmost to preserve its nobility as a source of fertility, where the children brought into the world are at once a tribute to the virtues of the parents and a sign of their role as procreators of life. A large number of children will proclaim their parent's fidelity to one another, their love of God and faith in His providence, and their affection for the offspring which He gave. (39)
Knowing the God is most benevolent, and as the saying goes, “each new baby comes with a loaf of bread,” Fr. Hardon encourages us to trust that His goodness will not abandon parents who have open hearts and welcoming homes.
By the same token, those who believe that God will not be outdone in generosity will not ask how little but how much they can do to prove their confidence in His help, without which all the talk about birth control is so much rhetoric. In the last analysis it takes complete trust in Providence to remain true to the mandate in Genesis, "increase and multiply," when the whole tempo of modern civilization in a country like America is geared to keeping the family down to an absolute minimum.
Thankfully, the Church has been blessed with fervent, holy priests who continue to encourage the faithful to regard the primary and secondary purposes of marriage in their proper order. As Fr. Ryan Erlenbush, Pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in Great Falls, Montana, who has earned a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Angelicum University in Rome, explains:
Matrimony becomes unintelligible whenever the procreation and education of children is not recognized as its primary end. Yes, the union of the spouses is essential as well, but even this unitive end is itself ordered to procreation since the spouses together raise and educate the children who are the fruit of their love. Indeed, what makes this union of man and wife to be marital is the reality that, of all forms of friendship and of unity, this union alone is ordered to the procreation and education of children.
By honoring and respecting the divinely-ordained order for marriage, the institution of marriage itself can be safeguarded against the many demonic attacks it faces today. Fr. Erlenbush expresses:
It is precisely this over-emphasis on the unitive end of matrimony that has led, in the secular world, to the so-called “marriage equality” movement. When the union of the spouses is placed above the procreation of children, marriage will no longer be seen as ordered primarily to family life. When the procreation of children is subordinated to the union of the couple, it becomes increasingly difficult to explain to secular society what is wrong with the saying “Love = Love.” But not all loves are the same, for the love of a husband and wife is primarily ordered to the procreation and education of children, something which can be said of no other love.”
God not only loves married people, His precious children, but He also loves the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. He gave it to us, right along with all of the sacrifices and blessings it entails, as an act of infinite charity, for the good of our personal salvation and that of the human race. Truly, God is the author of marriage and it is His great, marvelous work. As the omniscient Creator on high, He designed marriage to be fruitful and victorious – victorious over the spirits of darkness, selfishness and disunity. A holy marriage is like a lifeboat given to us by God's hand, helping us survive the tides of the raging culture of death. An openness to life helps to keep that lifeboat above water.
Maybe the King of Love wants to give our families “flowers” to bring new life into our domestic churches this year. Will we accept His gifts of love? Will we answer His cry of thirst from the cross for love, and bring Him the innocent souls of children to adore Him? Will we help fill the earth with living creatures that reflect His glory, and heaven with immortal souls to praise Him for all eternity?