Transmitting human life is serious business.
Not only that, transmitting human life is a *most* serious business. Pope Paul VI says in the opening line of his prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae, “The transmission of human life is a most serious role (munus gravissimum) in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator.”
He says it’s not just “serious”—it’s the superlative of serious. That’s how important transmitting human life is.
Still, some Catholics appear uncomfortable with using the word “grave” to describe the reasons a married couple might use Natural Family Planning (NFP) to say “not now” to this “most serious” munus of transmitting life. But I can’t quite see how transmitting life could be a munus gravissimum while the decision to postpone transmitting life could be anything less than the “superlative of serious.”
“Is it a good thing to be a person?” Pope Benedict XVI once asked in relation to having children. This is among the “grave” questions married couples must ask when choosing “yes” or “not now” via NFP. The answer is yes—and deciding whether to cooperate with God in bringing a person into existence is a decision of great gravity, precisely because it is always a good thing to be a person. Gaudium et Spes calls children “the supreme gift of marriage” and says that “by their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown.” Married couples are amazingly blessed to be called by God to “pro-creation.”
We Can\’t Judge Anyone Else’s Discernment
But before going further, we need to clearly express another doctrine of the Church: You and I do not get to decide whether another married couple’s exercise of parenthood or use of NFP is “responsible” or not. It\’s not my business. This judgment remains too “superlatively serious” to belong to anyone but the married couple and God. No good comes from judging the “gravity” of another couple’s NFP decisions. And this works both ways, just like NFP does—does this couple have too many children? Does that couple have too few? Not my business.
“The parents themselves should ultimately make this judgment, in the sight of God,” as it says in Gaudium et Spes, #50. (Let that sink in.) “Thus, trusting in divine Providence and refining the spirit of sacrifice, married Christians glorify the Creator and strive toward fulfillment in Christ when, with a generous human and Christian sense of responsibility, they acquit themselves of the duty to procreate.” This responsibility belongs to each couple, not me or you.
‘Grave Reasons’? Absolutely!
What about the English term “grave”—can we use “grave” to describe the reasons responsible parents need when saying “not now” to transmitting life? Yes, since the Church herself does. But the Magisterium also uses other expressions, too (here’s a list of some):
Pope Pius XII, Allocution to Italian Midwives, 1951:
-“sufficiently morally sure motives” (Italian: su motivi morali sufficienti e sicuri)
-“grave motives” (Italian: gravi motivi)
-“grave reason” (Italian: grave motivo)
-“serious motives” (Italian: seri motivi)
-“no such grave reasons” (Italian: simili gravi ragioni)
Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 1968:
-“serious reasons” (Latin: seriis causis)
-“well-grounded reasons” (Latin: justae causae)
-“acceptable reasons” (Latin: probabiles rationes)
-“reasonable motives” (Latin: justas rationes)
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 2368, 1992:
-“for just reasons” (Latin: justis de causis)
Add to this list the first line of Humanae Vitae from above (munus gravissimum). Isn’t it fair to conclude that our reasons for using NFP to say “not now” to transmitting new life ought to be, according to magisterial teaching, most serious, just, reasonable, morally sure, well-grounded, acceptable…and therefore “grave”? Don’t our reasons for using NFP need to have a certain “gravity”? After all, we’re making a choice whether to be open to the God-given privilege of assisting Him in the very work of creation, and God’s not done yet. Creation changes—for the better (remember the “and it was good” line from Genesis?)—every time a new soul comes into existence. So it’s not wrong to conclude that the good and just reasons to say “not now” to this great gift are also necessarily “grave” reasons.
‘Contraceptive Mentality’ in NFP? Entirely Possible…
One more thing: Can the “not now” to pro-creation that is the language of moral use of NFP become an immoral “No!” to pro-creation when using NFP? Of course it can, and if such a flawed moral intention exists in an NFP user, it can rightly be referred to as a “contraceptive mentality.”
But NFP is not contraception! (Right?)
Of course right! But the term introduced by Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio was not “contraception mentality”—rather, he spoke there of a “truly contraceptive mentality.”
The phrase “truly contraceptive mentality” involves the adjective “contraceptive” and not the noun “contraceptive” or “contraception.” Big difference. For Pope John Paul II, the term “contraceptive mentality” involves a mindset that is contra (against) the transmission of new life. He did not use the term to express a mindset that was merely for contraception. In fact, in Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II specifically contrasts the term “contraceptive mentality” with the term “responsible parenthood”: “It may be that many people use contraception with a view to excluding the subsequent temptation of abortion,” he says. “But the negative values inherent in the ‘contraceptive mentality’–which is very different from responsible parenthood, lived in respect for the full truth of the conjugal act–are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived.” (EV 13)
Further evidence of this magisterial understanding of “contraceptive mentality” is found in the Pontifical Council for the Family’s 1995 document The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality (#136), in which the “contraceptive mentality” is directly referred as “the ‘anti-life’ mentality.”
Can NFP be used with an “anti-life” or “contraceptive” mentality? It sure can. Pope Pius XII in his 1951 Allocution to Italian Midwives mentions the case of a spouse who enters marriage with the deliberate intention to always abstain during the fertile time. Not only would this constitute an obviously contraceptive (anti-life) mentality within the use of NFP, but it would likely represent an “essential defect in the marriage consent,” he said.
So, we don’t need to let terminology create division among Catholic NFP users. Quibbling over terms used consistently by the Magisterium seems both counterproductive and misguided, in my view.
In fact, go back and read the above paragraph about “not my business” regarding responsible parenthood. Maybe we can also all agree that it’s “not my business” whether a brother or sister Catholic wants to use the terms “grave” or “contraceptive mentality” if done in accord with their use by the Magisterium? I’d say the “gravity” of the situation demands of us less arguing and more responsible parenting.
So instead let’s pray for all married couples: May God give them the grace and the means both to say an enthusiastic “yes!” to new life whenever possible, and a sober “not now” when just, serious—and grave—reasons require it.