If you have run in Natural Family Planning (NFP) circles you have likely come across an idea that I’m going to call (though I’m not the first person to use this term) “providentialism.” This is the idea that Catholic couples should completely rely on God’s providence when it comes to how many children to have. I am not here to criticize couples who are providentialist. God does indeed call all of us to trust in His providence (see Matthew 6:22-34), and He calls some people to live that out in a radical way. What I want to talk about is when folks take the particular path that they believe God has called them to and then try to impose it on others.
This providentialist perspective I mentioned is often, bot not always, accompanied by the belief that there’s a grave moral obligation for a couple to have as many children as possible outside from life threatening health problems . This belief, in turn, gives rise to the infamous evil of “contraceptive intent” or a “contraceptive mentality.” It is these false ideas, that are regularly used as a way to judge or shame other people, that I want to address.
I have seen people who believe that there’s a grave moral obligation to have as many kids as possible cite Pope Paul VI’s famous encyclical, Humanae Vitae, to justify this idea. The pope said that the decision to not “have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time” should be motivated by “serious reasons” (HV 10). The argument goes something like: If the Church says that we need serious reasons to avoid pregnancy, then there must be a moral obligation to have as many kids as possible outside of extraordinary circumstances.
The problem with this argument is that it fails to take into account the rest of what Pope Paul VI says in that encyclical. In that same section, the Holy Father said the following about the need for couples to be responsible parents:
“With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.”
In other words, there are a number of reasons besides grave health issues to avoid having another child, including the “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions” of one’s family. These are what the Church would define as “serious reasons.” Furthermore, later in the encyclical, the pope appears to change his tone and says that couples can use the infertile time to avoid pregnancy (NFP) for “well-grounded reasons,” “acceptable reasons,” or even just “reasonable motives” (HV 16). Something being “reasonable” is a noticeably lower bar than something being “serious.” Essentially, the Church wants couples to err on the side of having kids unless they have a reasonable reason not to. This isn’t a matter of grave sin.
Next I want to address the all too common belief in such a thing as “contraceptive intent” or a “contraceptive mentality.” This idea can be summarized as thinking that a couple who intentionally avoids having sex during fertile periods, for less than grave reasons, in order to avoid getting pregnant is guilty of “contraceptive intent,” a grave sin, the spiritual brother to actually using contraception. In other words, any couple that uses NFP to avoid getting pregnant, unless they are in extraordinary circumstances, has a “contraceptive mentality.”
However, this belief isn’t consistent with Humanae Vitae either. Pope Paul said:
“Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love” (HV 16).
Three things to note in this passage.
The reason contraception is evil is not because of an intent to avoid children, but because it obstructs the “generative process.” I.e. “…any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation” (HV 14).
Pope Paul VI readily acknowledges that couples who “take advantage of the infertile period” are doing so with the “intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result.”
He then praises those couples saying, “In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love.”
In other words, the intention to not have kids is not “contraceptive intent” unless there’s the intention to actually use contraception. Deliberately avoiding sex during fertile periods isn’t anything like the evil of contraception. Rather, according to Pope Paul, it’s “proof of a true and authentic love.”
Making up new sins like “contraceptive intent” and then judging others for them is an offense to both truth and charity. Catholics who are living out the teaching of Humanae Vitae should be applauded and supported. They are swimming upstream in our current culture. They have taken the burden of the moral law upon themselves and yoked their marriage and family to Christ and the Church. But instead of encouraging them, fellow Catholics will bash them from the left flank as the fight in the front. We need to keep our personal pieties and moral preferences to ourselves and stop wielding them as weapons to cut down our brothers and sisters.
As we begin the great season of Lent, let’s take the prayer of St. Ephrem to heart: Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother, since you are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen.