providentialism, NFP, and contraception

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I hang out with a lot of different folks via the internet. I have the opportunity to 'hear' many different points of view and communicate with persons from many different cultures, backgrounds, and walks of life. It can get rather interesting and at times, the discussions can get heated. Some topics, in some groups, are guaranteed to set off flames, sometimes to the point that group moderators have banned the topic. For example, one midwife group I am on has banned the topics of infant circumcision, vaccination, and abortion as being just too controversial. Other groups have other 'don't go there' topics.

I have found that in my little corner of the blogosphere, family planning issues tend to bring out the trolls in spades. (side note - does anyone know why a large quantity of something is 'in spades'?). Whether discussing infertility, undesired fertility, chastity or its opposite, the topic seems to pull them in. And I guess that this is because sexuality is so big a part of who we are as created beings. My study of Theology of the Body has only reinforced to me that while biology may not always be destiny, we also can't ignore that we are incarnate beings - not ethereal spirits. We are created in the image and likeness of God, and we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

I have noticed that, among those who profess Christianity, the attitudes towards family planning and married sexuality tend to fall into one of 3 groups. The first is what I call providentialist, and what many other Christian groups call Quiverfull (QF for short).

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. Psalm 127

The basic rationale in this group is that God opens the womb and that God shuts the womb, and that any method of family planning in marriage, including total or periodic abstinence, is immoral. (I don't know where they stand on marital relations during lactational amenorrhea or after menopause.) Many will also tell you that the main point of marital relations is procreation. "To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature." Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor of Children 2:10:95:3 (A.D. 191). To call this attitude providentialist is to allude to the idea that God will provide. I worry though, that this attitude comes awfully close to the sin of presumption - to say to God that "I will do as I choose and you have to take care of the consequences". How does one balance trust and faith with sense and reason?

I have known of a few QF families that are quite happy - and I have heard hair-raising stories of abuse and serious post-partum depression. Many live in poverty, but some are quite wealthy. I don't buy into the stereotypes, but I do worry about whether the voice that they are hearing is truly of God or if it is something else.

Then there is that large group, (possibly even the majority of those who call themselves Christian) who believe in birth control. That is, they believe that it is responsible stewardship to use whatever means are available to them to exert control over their reproduction. To this end they will use chemical contraception such as hormonal manipulation to decrease fertility. Or they will use barriers between husband and wife. Or possibly they might choose to use chemicals to kill the sperm, or devices to prevent the implantation of the fertilized egg. And when they are through with childbearing, many will choose to destroy part of their reproductive system to bring their chances of an unplanned pregnancy down to almost zero. They point out rightfully that the Bible does not specifically prohibit contraception (other than possibly, withdrawal - "the sin of Onan". The prohibitions that are part of historical Christianity are subject to the interpretation of Scripture.

This group also points out, rightfully, that the purpose of the sexual act within marriage is twofold - the procreation of offspring and also to bind husband and wife together. They see their judicious use of birth control methods to be loving and responsible, and often (but not always) have disdain for large families. While I can see their logic and their loving consideration, I also think that this attitude of distrust can come perilously close to the sin of despair. It puts the individual, or the couple, in the position of saying NO to God in a very important part of married life, the procreation of children. There is also an element of hubris that says I will be able to have children when I please and not when I don't please.

All Christian groups up until close to 100 years ago opposed contraception as well as opposing abortion. Many may not know that contraception by various means as well as abortion has a record dating back to antiquity. St. John Chrysostom found it needful to homilize against both contraception and abortion:

"Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit, where there are medicines of sterility [oral contraceptives], where there is murder before birth? You do not even let a harlot remain only a harlot, but you make her a murderess as well…Indeed, it is something worse than murder, and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you condemn the gift of God and fight with his [natural] laws?…Yet such turpitude…the matter still seems indifferent to many men—even to many men having wives. In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife. Against her are these innumerable tricks." John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 24 (A.D. 391).

and he was speaking more than 1500 years ago!

And then, there is the third group - possibly the smallest minority among married Christians in the present time. Those who believe that it is occasionally moral and ethical to exert some control or judgement over their use of their fertility, but who also decline to use methods that either temporarily or permanently destroy fertility or block its transmission. They learn to identify the fertile days of the cycle, and make choices about intimacy based on this knowledge. This group can often end up trying to explain themselves to both the QF types and the "birth control is just responsible stewardship" types. To one, they are explaining that abstinence is not the same as contraception - to the other they are explaining that just because they are using periodic (or total) abstinence for avoiding or delaying pregnancy, they are not contracepting. It is a tough place to be in. But NFP is not just "Catholic birth control". It respects the way God created the body by not destroying fertility, and it respects the unitive aspect of marital love by not putting a physical or chemical barrier between the spouses. And its very difficulty is such that I think it is difficult to use for frivolous reasons. Contraception has become so easy that it becomes possible to think of pregnancy as the exception, rather than the rule, when considering the consequences of sexual relations!

A friend of mine pointed out to me recently that there is a chronological connection between the rise of bottle-feeding and the pressures to approve contraception. Breastfeeding, especially unrestricted and long-continued, provides quite a substantial spacing between pregnancies. God's design is not that a woman should have and raise a baby every year! The way the body is designed, the hormone level associated with frequent suckling and good milk flow inhibits ovulation. If the infant is suddenly weaned, or never suckles, the body thinks that the baby has died - and therefore will restart the ovulatory cycle in an effort to replace that lost infant. Generally fertility does not return until about 6 months postpartum in a fully breastfeeding mother, but some will be later and others earlier.

Widespread bottle-feeding became generally safe and commonly practiced in the 1910s in the USA, despite advice such as this. This booklet on birth control was published in 1921. In her part of the debate quoted in ths booklet, Margaret Sanger refers to women having a child every year - this is to my mind clearly a consequence of widespread bottle feeding. I could be wrong. My friends who midwife in the Amish, Mennonite, or other "plain" communities tell me that the moms who bottle feed generally do have their babies much closer together then those who breastfeed. These communities generally do not approve of any method of child spacing.

In any event, what does God truly desire from us regarding our families? In Casti connubii, Pope Pius XI clarified the position of the Catholic Church on marriage and family planning.
From Wikipedia:

Prior to this encyclical, it was believed by some Catholics that the only licit reason for sexual intercourse was an attempt to create children (Yalom 297-8, 307). At the time, there was no official church position on any non-procreative purposes of intercourse. Casti Connubii does repeat several times that the conjugal act is intrinsically tied with procreation:

" . . . any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin."

However, Casti Connubii also acknowledges the unitive aspect of intercourse as licit:

"Nor are those considered as acting against nature who in the married state use their right in the proper manner although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth. For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved."

The 'natural reasons of time or of certain defects' are universally accepted as meaning menopause and infertility. This paragraph thus means menopausal and infertile couples may morally engage in intercourse, even though there is no possibility of children resulting from the act.

The 'natural reasons of time' is also held to mean the infertile portion of a woman's menstrual cycle. Though this interpretation has generated some controversy in the Catholic Church, it was supported by two 1951 speeches by Pope Pius XII (English translation entitled Moral Questions Affecting Married Life) and by the release of Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI in 1968 - nearly forty years after Casti Connubii. The use of natural family planning – that is, limiting sexual relations to the infertile phase of a woman's menstrual cycle – is considered moral by Catholic theologians where sufficient reason exists to avoid or postpone pregnancy.

Sufficient reason. Grave cause. Serious circumstances. There are many of these. Responsibility to the children one already has, the health of the mother, temporary or permanent hardships - it is not possible to give a complete list. Here is where the rule of an informed conscience is paramount. But it is also possible to be selfish here - and also to have a misunderstanding of what one's responsibilities and limits truly are. I only wish, at this point in my life, that I had been a little more generous. I wish that I had listened to those of my children who begged me for a baby brother - while I was still young enough to have tried again. And maybe that regret is one of the prime reasons I have come to the point where I am now. And again, maybe it is just that I have been trying to let God work on my life more and more.


So much to chew on here.

I hadn't thought about the connection between widespread bottle feeding and widespread acceptance of contraception. Interesting.

"I only wish, at this point in my life, that I had been a little more generous. I wish that I had listened to those of my children who begged me for a baby brother - while I was still young enough to have tried again."

So poignant. I've seen this sentiment voiced many times. Almost never do you hear parents wishing they had fewer children. (And those that do I want to ask, which of your children would you not wish to be here?) It's a question I struggle with when I feel I'm at my limit, tired and exhausted. It's hard to let go and trust God, to remember that he provides, not only material but also spiritual resources. Like you said, how to balance the line between presumption and despair. A hard question.

Thank you so much for your frank discussion of this often thorny subject.

Indeed, it's a very thorny subject as I discovered when I tried to blog about about it. Truth-sex-contraception

Alicia, you have a slightly different angle on a couple of those issues that I had not heard before - thank you.

Sincerely in Christ,
Hidden One

colleen was the only one who wanted a little brother. The rest of us were fine with the six of us. I think you and dad had exactly the number of children God wanted you to.

Thank you, Alicia, for an interesting essay. I have four comments.
1. Wikipedia errs if it says the Church had no position about periodic abstinence before 1930. When European scientists were speculating about the fertile and infertile times of the cycle in the mid-19th century, the moral question of engaging in the marriage act only in the infertile times reached the Vatican. Twice it affirmed the moral permissibility of what today we call NFP for avoiding pregnancy. The scientists of the day had things all wrong, but the Vatican based its statement on moral principle, not just human physiology.
2. While "fully breastfeeding" yields only about six months of postpartum infertility, we have found that mothers who practice the Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding average 14 to 15 months before their first period.
3. Articles related to Humanae Vitae and Ecological Breastfeeding may be found at our website, Some readers may find particularly helpful the Home Page "And more..." items titled "Understanding Humanae Vitae" and "Not Just for Catholics.'
4. At the blog on our website we are currently writing about Ecological Breastfeeding.

Sheila Kippley
Author: Breastfeeding and Catholic Motherhood (Sophia, 2005)
Co-author: Natural Family Planning: The Question-Answer Book, a free e-book available at

There is one category you omitted:

Those who, while recognizing the liceity of using NFP, choose instead to practice temporary abstinence: i.e. abstaining from intercourse throughout the time period that "sufficient reason," "grave cause," and "serious circumstances" exist that advise against getting pregnant.

Of course, I have to state that I am not "against" NFP, which some people tend to think when I talk about this. I don't question the existence of serious enough circumstances for anybody to use it, and I refuse to hold myself as judge over anybody's conscience in their decision to use it.

Rather, I think the way NFP is encouraged as the "first resort" is harmful in that temporary abstinence is an ancient and good tradition, and it is never, ever discussed anymore due to the emphasis on NFP. I think that's terribly wrong.

I know many good couples who claim to have derived great spiritual benefit from using NFP, and I believe them. I don't begrudge anybody the use of NFP (though I have other problems with NFP, I must admit that most of them have at least an element of personal preference about them, so I keep my mouth shut). But it is glaringly obvious that something is wrong when the practice of temporary abstinence (as opposed to the "periodic abstinence" of NFP) is altogether absent from the discussion.

This is an excellent post, but I do have one question I've never been able to get a straight answer about. What if NFP doesn't work for a particular couple? That is, what if the woman can't tell when she's fertile and when she's not due to cycle problems? I use NFP and I have a lot of ambiguous signs. I've already had one unplanned pregnancy. I know that such problems can often be corrected through medical or nutritional intervention, but say a woman tries everything and is still having a hard time determining when the fertile time is. Or, if you think such a situation would be extremely rare, what should a woman with irregular cycles have done in the 1950s when the rhythm method was the only known form of natural birth regulation? Should the couple have just abstained altogether if they had a serious reason to avoid pregnancy? Those who promote NFP take it for granted that it’s 98 percent effective for everybody. It seems like they will never admit under any circumstances that it may not work for some people. Maybe it’s true that it’s very effective for most people, but that doesn’t mean it is for everyone. And the rhythm method certainly wasn’t very effective for a large percentage of women.

You do make an excellent point about breastfeeding. I agree that breastfeeding is part of God’s plan for spacing babies naturally. However, there are still situations in which a woman may need more spacing than breastfeeding naturally provides. Fertility always returns eventually, no matter how long you breastfeed. What if a couple had a serious reason to space their children out more than breastfeeding allows, or to stop having children altogether, and they couldn’t use NFP or the rhythm method or whatever form of natural birth regulation was available to them because it just didn’t work for them? If such a couple decided just to accept babies whenever they came, would they be guilty of the sin of presumption? What else could they do, when the only alternatives are birth control (a grave sin) or complete abstinence (which could be very harmful to the marriage)?

>Almost never do you hear parents wishing they >had fewer children. (And those that do I want to >ask, which of your children would you not wish >to be here?)
Actually, I have heard elderly female relatives telling grown children that, not only do they wish they had had fewer children, they specifically wish that they hadn't had them (the child/children being spoken to). (It's usually a somewhat self-immolative trump card in a bitter dispute.....)

Sarahndipity: I'm sure there are NFP teachers that can answer your question about couples who have a difficult time w/NFP, even w/couples who say they "can't" use NFP. I will offer you the method that I believe is 99% effective - especially when used in conjunction with NFP - and that's a fertility moniter. Although some use ClearBlue, I prefer Persona - it's more conservative for avoiding pregnancy and I've used both of those moniters. The moniter measures hormones in morning urine and it's pretty clear when those hormones go up and down. Use the information as you wish but more information about the hormonal design of your own body can only be a good thing.

I have recently discovered your blog. I am a Catholic mother of four and a midwife in training. Your blog is so edifying. Let's pray for each others work.Thank you for all the good info.

Hi Annonymous,

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks for your response - I actually tried a Clearplan monitor for awhile and it didn't work very well. It said I was fertile long before I actually was (I have very long cycles). However, I was recently diagnosed with PCOS, and I've heard that when you have PCOS it can cause fertility monitors to give false readings, so that's probably why it didn't work too well. The Persona you mentioned might work better for me. However I think I looked into it once and it was pretty expensive.

I'm glad such technology is available for people who have trouble with NFP, though I have to admit it seems a bit ridiculous that some people have to buy $300 fertility monitors just to be able to tell when they’re fertile. Birth control pills are probably a lot cheaper! Not that that makes birth control ok, but so much for NFP being “cheap.?

I still don’t know what people should have done before we had fertility monitors, or before we knew about NFP, or even before we knew about the rhythm method. For most of human history people had no idea what time of the cycle a woman was fertile. I agree that breastfeeding is part of God’s plan for spacing babies and I’m sure the decline in breastfeeding is part of what led to the push for birth control. I also believe that women were meant to have more than 1.5 children and that our society has changed in ways that make that very difficult. But if people back then had a serious reason not to have any more children, or to space children farther apart than breastfeeding allowed, what should they have done? Abstain altogether until menopause?

I'm glad such technology is available for people who have trouble with NFP. But that still doesn't answer the question as to what people should have done before we had fertility monitors, or before we knew about NFP, or even before we knew about the rhythm method. For most of

At $300, the fertility monitor costs as much as 20 cycles of BC pills would be on my health insurance--if they're the ones on the 'cheapest' tier. Even if one had to buy a new monitor every two years, it would still be less expensive.

Hi, I saw your request for comment on Jennifer F.'s blog (Et tu, Jen?). I have a lot to say on this topic - I hope some of it is useful.

Mrs. Kippley is correct about the Casti Connubii missing some information - the history section of the Rhythm Method article discusses the 19th century Vatican statements she mentions. Adding that information to the Casti Connubii article is on my to-do list (I really enjoy editing Wikipedia and encourage all readers who find misinformation in its pages to correct it).

However, the early church father St. Augustus wrote about a type of Rhythm Method in the year 388. While certainly less effective than the Knaus-Ogino method developed in 1930, or its precursors of the mid-19th century - it was at least something to reduce the likelihood of an untimely pregnancy. The early Catholic Church knew of its existence. And chose to withhold that knowledge from Christians for over 1500 years. I question their claim of having "never changed" positions on moral questions such as contraception - their failure to teach periodic abstinence for most of Christian history is effectively a condemnation of the method, and yet in the 20th century the Church embraced periodic abstinence.

Alicia here talk about contraceptive methods, but do not touch on intimate acts other than intercourse. I believe current Catholic theologians teach that only intercourse is moral, because this is the only intimate act that is commonly procreative. If a couple dislikes intercourse during menstruation because of the mess, or the private areas of one spouse are sore due to yeast infection or previous intercourse-related irritation - well, that couple is just out of luck as far as the unitive aspects of intimacy. (You can tell I disagree with this position.) (This paragraph edited to more obscure language to get around spam filters.)

As far as barriers - if a couple wants to use a diaphragm to reduce the mess of intercourse during menstruation, is that disrespecting the bodies of the spouses? I do not see placing a physical barrier between the spouses as disregarding God's intention for their bodies.

I also want to comment on the "difficulty" of NFP. An argument I see sometimes from lay Catholics is that periodic abstinence is so "difficult" that users will just give up using it and get pregnant, and so look how wonderfully open to life they are. I think this is demeaning of the Catholic ideal of responsible parenthood, and to the benefits periodic abstinence brings to spouses laid out in Humanae Vitae, John Paul II's Theology of the Body, in Couple to Couple League materials, and most likely many other places I have not had the fortune to read. Society does not support periodic abstinence, and so people are not given the tools they need to practice it. But I do not believe periodic abstinence should ever be viewed as a punishment or burden whose only purpose is to encourage couples to have children against their better judgment.

Also, the "Almost never do you hear parents wishing they had fewer children" comment. I have heard this several times, actually, and always from parents who love all their children dearly. The argument that no good parent would ever regret choosing to conceive is more toward the Quiverfull view of "have as many children as possible" than the Catholic view of responsible parenthood.

Despite my objections to certain aspects, above, I find the Catholic view of children and family to overall be very powerful. And I agree that widespread acceptance and use of NFP as the pregnancy avoidance method of choice would go a long way toward helping society live out that vision. However, I do not believe this excludes any use of other pregnancy avoidance methods - only that such use should be a minority practice for those couples that, despite good support from society, NFP is just not a good fit for.

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This page contains a single entry by alicia published on April 29, 2007 6:01 PM.

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