I was pleased to see that you chose to print an excerpt by Pope John Paul II immediately following the commentary by Dermott and Sue Mullan, “The Rule, Not An Exception: A Catholic Dad on Openness to Life … And His Wife's Response: Cheerios and the Kingdom of God” (June 15-21). While their commitment to have as many children as possible may be God's will for them as a couple, it is by no means the position of the Church that all couples should feel compelled to have very large families.
John Paul's wish to “have personnel available who can teach married couples how to use the natural methods” in every diocese is a testimony to the great faith the Church places in the ability of couples to prayerfully discern the size of their family.
In addition to the many other licit reasons the Church allows for a couple to postpone pregnancy, the physical and emotional toll of bearing children on a woman's body is not something to be taken lightly. Our merciful God allows mothers displaying symptoms of postpartum depression or other physical or emotional strains the means to avoid a tragedy of Andrea Yates proportions. I would encourage the Mullans to consult Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader edited by Janet E. Smith.
We must avoid the misguided assumption that causes us to judge families who may have fewer children as being not open to life. This subtle form of pride may cause couples to feel that they should have as many children as that oh-so-peaceful mother of 15 when they may not be physically, emotionally or fiscally capable of taking care of the children they already have.
As someone who is pro-life and anti-contraception, I applaud the Mullans on their generosity in accepting a large family. There is no doubt that children are a blessing and that families receive many graces when they conceive a child. It should be noted, however, for those who fear taking the step to eliminate contraception from their marriage, that the decision to have a very large family is as much the result of prudent and prayerful reflection as the decision to postpone pregnancy.
We write in response to Dermott and Sue Mullan's articles regarding marriage and children (June 15-21).
Mr. Mullan begins by comparing a couple's decision to “contracept” with a government's decision to execute a criminal. This comparison seems to be overly harsh and betrays a confused notion of family planning. He speaks of “moral and immoral methods of contraception,” presumably putting natural family planning into the “moral” category. Natural family planning is not a form of contraception, for it does nothing to prevent an act of marriage from achieving conception. In Catholic teaching, there is no such thing as “moral” contraception, but there is the decision made for a just and serious reason to abstain. This is not contraception; it is self-control.
Mr. Mullan cannot understand why Catholic couples preparing for marriage should be instructed in family planning as a matter of course. We have worked in the trenches of marriage prep for years, and it may surprise the Mullans to know that the majority of Catholic engaged couples are already contracepting before their weddings and desperately need to learn about the sacrament they are entering and its call to holiness and chastity. A decent introductory class in natural family planning will often be the first time they hear this challenge to change.
Mrs. Mullan, feeling overwhelmed with four babies in five years, is encouraged by her friend, a mother of 15, to be constantly open to life. We are in awe of any couple who cheerfully raises 15 children but know that most couples are not equipped to do so. For the rest of us, we look to the Church's teaching on responsible parenthood (Humanae Vitae 10, Familiaris Consortio35, Pope John Paul II's general audiences of Sept. 5, 1984, and Aug. 1, 1985) to see that the Church understands human limitations and is quick to promote the study of natural methods of birth regulation. It is also crucial to note the freedom of conscience, as couples make decisions informed by the teachings of the Church.
Of course, natural family planning can be used with a contraceptive mentality, and Catholic couples must pray to be free of such motives. But there are many couples who have both generous hearts and serious reasons to avoid another birth. For them, the natural methods of self-mastery are a blessing that allows them to celebrate their mutual love.
MARK AND JENELLE VAN BRUNT