Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Of all the moral theories I learned in my few years of studying philosophy, a morality based on virtue was the one that made the most sense. Furthermore, in the writings of the doctors of the Church and the great spiritual works, again and again, virtue is the basis for human happiness. St. Augustine explains that, “Virtue is a good habit consonant with our nature.” And as our nature was created for union with God, virtues are habits that make us like God. Also, seeking a life of virtue is inseparable from loving God, for to form virtue we must first keep God’s law as we see in Matthew 19:16-17:
And behold, one came up to him, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments."
Virtues are good habits, and when one uses discipline to follow the commandments and the moral law, one is habituated in virtue, and by being habituated in virtue, one is happy—for that is what happiness is.
It is Natural Family Planning awareness week again in the Church, and the discussion of NFP in the blogosphere is one that never seems to cease. After nine years of charting cycles, eight years of charting while married, and four beautiful children on earth, I can honestly say that the most human approach to sexuality is one that is based in virtue. Since NFP uses reason and requires virtue, is a more human approach to sexuality than the natural passions approach or the providentialist approach. One with a natural passions approach would say that using NFP hinders married love; it causes one to put restraints on the natural impulses a husband and wife have towards each other. The providentialist would say that one should not interfere whatsoever in planning pregnancies; one would be interfering with God’s plan.
However, Pope Paul VI already addressed these issues in the defining document, Humanae Vitae, which summed up the Church’s traditional teaching on the immorality of contraception and on the permissibility of the use of periodic abstinence. He did not just say that it was allowed, he actually said that it was “truly human”:
For if with the aid of reason and of free will they are to control their natural drives, there can be no doubt at all of the need for self-denial. Only then will the expression of love, essential to married life, conform to right order. This is especially clear in the practice of periodic continence. Self-discipline of this kind is a shining witness to the chastity of husband and wife and, far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character. (Humanae Vitae 21)
The learning and usage of NFP, when done properly, allows for a husband and wife to use their reason to moderate their passions so that they are really used in a human way. Our passions are good things in themselves, but without reason over them, they become immoderate. That is why the virtue we build through the use of NFP helps us to be more chaste and more truly human. Chastity within marriage requires our use of reason, self-control, and a great deal of love as marriage, after all, is a remedy for concupiscence.
Since the release of Humanae Vitae, so much scientific research has been done to advance our understanding of human fertility and women’s natural cycles. Using this knowledge to bring virtue into marriage is part of being truly human.
Self-discipline is the first thing a woman has to learn in order to chart her cycles, and her husband should help her in this discipline to the best of his ability. Learning NFP takes months of observation (cycles and cycles) to understand what the signs mean, what times are fertile, what times might be fertile, what times are not fertile; and it requires instruction from a trained practitioner to really do it well. When the spouses work together, are disciplined in charting and are discerning prayerfully their openness to another child, they are forming themselves in many virtuous habits. They need charity to love God and each other well, to be open to His will and what is best for the other. They need prudence to see their situation in life clearly in all aspects. They need temperance to be chaste and self-disciplined. When a husband and wife have all of these virtues they live a truly happy and holy life together.
Pope Paul VI also explained that a wife and husband are to approach parenthood through seeking God’s will and plan:
[T]he exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.
From this it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out. (HV 10)
We were given reason to use it in accord with God’s reason, and NFP allows us to use our reason to make decisions about transmitting new human life. Our reason is not meant to just follow God blindly, but to seek to know Him, the way He created the world, and to use that knowledge to make virtuous choices.
Seeking God’s will, especially in regards to new human life, is not something that a married couple can do once in their marriage and never do again. All sacramental marriages begin with the couple affirming that they will accept children lovingly from God, but when to accept them, and the circumstances of life must be factored into responsibly acting in a way that brings about a new human life. Being responsible requires the virtues of prudence and wisdom, and a great deal of trust in God. It requires daily prayer, monthly discernment, and complete openness between the spouses about all aspects of health, mental states, finances, the needs of already existing children and other grave things.
One can never anticipate from day one of marriage, when knowing how to use NFP to avoid having a baby will be crucial for a family. So many things can happen that one never anticipated; illness, children with special needs, financial instability, depression, and so much more. God wants us to have a relationship with him, to use our reason to pray and seek His will, and use our reason to look at our lives and discern what is best.
However, achieving the use of our reason over our wills and passions is not easy; and besides the need for self-discipline we need grace. We need to daily surrender to God’s grace and will. We need to form our reason in his image. And again, Pope Paul VI anticipated this need in his document:
For this reason husbands and wives should take up the burden appointed to them, willingly, in the strength of faith and of that hope which "does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Then let them implore the help of God with unremitting prayer and, most of all, let them draw grace and charity from that unfailing fount which is the Eucharist.” (HV 25)
I wrote a few weeks ago about how God’s grace is foundational for marriage, and it truly is the case in every aspect, especially in how we approach our sexuality. We are not to submit blindly to God’s will without our use of reason and we are not to let our passions rule us; we need to allow ourselves to be formed by virtue so that we can use our reason in accord with God and rule our passions.