The challenges of marriage are many. There is the constant struggle of love, played out joyfully or sorrowfully. There is the commitment of fidelity, hinging sometimes precariously on betrayal in a culture that incessantly advocates pleasure before sacrifice. And there is the capacity for the generation of new life, sometimes fraught with difficulties too innumerable to count. The sacrifices of marriage are also many, as are its potential joys.
All the complexities inherent in married life, and in maternity and paternity specifically, are paradoxically a gift, insofar as they are experiences of purification, and perfecting for the love spouses vow to one another — a love that is oriented, created and intended to be fruitful, both spiritually and physically.
The combination of factors that we ought to consider in bringing new life into the world revolve not simply on the kind of planning we can undertake, prudently, and carefully, but are in themselves the clear indication of the fact that without this particular capacity for generating new life, marriage would fall short of human expectations and be rendered essentially useless.
The one constant point of stability in debates on so called ‘procreation’ is natural family planning (NFP). (For the record, I prefer the terms ‘generation’ and ‘generativity’ to pro-creation. More on this, soon.) It is a fact, outside the minority of certain circles, that most people have no idea what NFP is. And within observant Catholic or Christian circles, NFP is a constant issue of debate: the methods, practice, the spiritual implications and necessary dispositions, the biological nuances, all indicate it is a highly complex and difficult way of living conjugal life. The interesting thing is that NFP ‘methods or models’ have been developed as a relatively modern approach to understanding human fertility and fecundity. The amount of information out there on NFP is significant, if one knows where to look, but most of it is imperfect and at times deeply lacking, both in substance and form. A plethora of mis-information and complex methodology regarding natural family planning manages to confuse the already complex and renders it unintelligible. So much for planning; it often goes very wrong.
NFP is complicated. I read Simcha Fisher’s The Sinners Guide to Natural Family Planning in one sitting last weekend. I credit Simcha Fisher for taking on a difficult topic and rendering it intelligible, albeit in some surprising and sometimes shocking ways, but I do think the project she engages with regards to NFP remains incomplete. It has to be said that fundamentally, the kinds of difficulties she narrates are ones I am familiar with only anecdotally. My side of the family planning conundrum has nothing to do with the specificities of planning for pregnancy, or postponing pregnancy for just reasons; infertility effectively throws all NFP order and rules out the window. And yet, I do think that in so doing, infertility actually allows one to consider NFP more objectively; perhaps, by necessity. And this is a good thing, born of particular struggle.
The reality of natural family planning is that in its nature it is a response to fertility — a fertility which, on a purely anthropological level, but also on a spiritual level, is intended to be generously lived. The Church’s teaching in this regard reflects reality: human love in its pure form, unfettered by utility, is naturally generous. It is this synthesis of the Church’s teaching on this particular aspect of conjugal life that is a necessary pre-requisite to any focus on family planning practicalities. And this is the perspective that I would like to bring to the fore in responding to the telos of Fisher’s work. For however committed one is to marital union and its fruitfulness, marriage is not intended to focus on planning the generation of new life, or learning how to reasonably postpone it. It is, rather, about first learning what generativity itself is, and what it is for. I do think that this approach is a prior one, and a more helpful one to that of learning to decode natural family planning itself — applying it to the complex realities of married life, human physiology, human psychology, and the very human and good desire and need for love. And I also believe that one cannot be done without the other.
Some points to this end, in the form of two hopefully helpful reflections in the negative.
Procreation in not for us. We are vessels for the reception of the miracle of new life, brought into existence, yes, by our love, yes, by our physical union and the initiation of certain biological processes of physiological growth, but only because of the will and providence of God. These lives are entrusted to us. And it is because of this reality, that the priority in reflecting on human generativity ought to be the generativity of God: His continuous and active creation; His bringing into being.
The Catholic view of NFP cannot remain a horizontal one focused on the other: spouses somehow attempting to gain understanding, and order, and control of their unitive life. This is all certainly necessary and good, but radically insufficient. The Catholic focus on NFP must become first and foremost a vertical one, upward gazing to the One who is Himself the author of life, and the first cause of our being and existence. Generation is not our own creation; we have not made ourselves capable of begetting new life. We are secondary to it. Procreation, in Latin pro-creatio, actually and literally means ‘creation for’.
For whom, or for what? For God, firstly, for His glory, and the manifestation of the abundance of divine life, continuing in modern incarnate form through lives we bring into the world. And yes, also then, for us, in a participatory way, because and insofar as we delight in the manifestation of the divine creativity at play in the ‘creation’ of new human beings which we effect with our bodies — miracles of bodily and spiritual existence that they are — who on coming in the world, elicit our wonder and awe.
In this, we see that ‘pro-creation’ is also not about us. While we actively have a stake in the generativity inherent to conjugal life, and a responsibility to ensure that the children begotten in this union are educated in the life of virtue, we remain instruments in a plan we can engage both physically and spiritually, and yet is not one of our own making. Nor is it a plan simply intended to multiply ourselves. While having children, having more of us, may seem like a wonderful and fulfilling idea to us (or perhaps a very bad one, as the culture tells us), God creates human life so that the word may have more of Him. Funny how this works: ‘our’ children have God’s face.
The nature of married life is such that two people come together in sacramental union to expand the horizon of human love and direct it to the ultimate end of human existence: the vision of God’s fullness, and generosity.
Let all be convinced that human life and the duty of transmitting it are not limited by the horizons of this life only: their true evaluation and full significance can be understood only in reference to man’s eternal destiny.”
—Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2371, bold emphasis added
The Church proposes these as intentionally strong points for reflection. It is because of this understanding and orientation ‘to man’s eternal destiny’, and through this sacramentally blessed vow of union, that the human person, as spouse, has the capacity to effect the plan of God, and is given also the freedom to pause or veer from it, or to oppose it entirely. NFP must be inserted into this structure for it to remain an appealing and helpful formation on the practicalities inherent to life-giving efforts of marriage. It is in this way that NFP is no longer simply a method or planning tool, but becomes a helpful building block of marital sacramental theology, wherein marriage is oriented to God, and becomes even more fully an experience of and participation in divine love on earth.
Any seriously committed spouse should desire not simply to learn why NFP is good, and how it can best help strengthen one’s conjugal life, but firstly to understand that there is something prior to NFP itself that must be mastered: and this is the capacity to desire as God desires — itself no easy task. Granted, NFP practiced well as appropriate to each marriage, can also help spouses get to this point, but teaching and learning, and proposing NFP well, depends on this prior reflection. Without it, NFP fails, and miserably so. And we will struggle with it to the end, more so than we already do.
This particular lens, that pro-creatio is not for us, and not about us, is missing from all of the NFP instruction and commentary I have come across in the last decade, including the bestselling work Fisher has authored. It is, I believe, a pre-requisite reflection that cannot be disjointed from the whole. However one wishes to discuss NFP: bluntly as Simcha Fisher does, or more theologically as might be appropriate to its placement in the realm of moral and sacramental theology, or practically as might be appropriate to marriage preparation or one’s spiritual growth and formation in virtue, I do believe a shift in focus is necessary, such that NFP is cast anew, vertically, and in the wider context of the friendships inherent to marriage: friendship firstly with God, and then, flowing directly from that bond, friendship with one’s spouse.
Only so, would we help shift the complex cases in the direction of adopting the meaning of conjugal life to such an extent that spouses would be able to see and experience the paradigmatic change in their perception of self-capacity for fruitful generosity and the many sacrifices it entails. For sacrifice on its own is detestable, and unappealing. Sacrifice is only possible in the context of a Love that is first received and believed in. Only so, will NFP be transformed from being simply a response to the contraceptive culture we live in, and become what it is intended to be: a gift to protect and nurture the immense dignity of marital love — that love which is a portal to divine life in the world.
And it is this necessary re-orientation of NFP which would help even those for whom the complexities of NFP are not applicable — marriages where the lifetime project of begetting, birthing and raising children, and the ‘messiness of NFP’ are not the challenge, but rather other factors are; where fruitfulness must be re-learned and the gift of oneself re-oriented in ways that are not the norm of marital experience, so that the union might endure, and possibly flourish through new forms of generative self-offering.
Because in the blunt words of Simcha Fischer, ‘NFP sucks,’ but I think there is far more to marriage and fertility than ‘planning’. And however much we might want or rightly need to plan, Love is primarily a Person, with whom human love hopes to unite in generating life, and so truly become fruitful and multiply. Though, perhaps, not physically. Or even, yes, abundantly.
This is the fourth article in a series on maternity. See also The Hidden Face of Love, The Common Good of Hidden Maternity, and Why I Choose Not to Buy Myself A Child.
You may reach Maria Grizzetti at IncarnationandModernity@gmail.com