Updated: Sep 18, 2021
Among Catholic circles, family planning and family size can become a hot topic. In an effort to be counter-cultural, to fight against the culture of death, and the illusion of control offered by various means of contraception, there seems to be a desire among some to swing the pendulum to the other end of the spectrum and conclude that a “good” Catholic family is one that has a certain number of children, usually 4 or more. This can leave many couples who have valid reasons to avoid a pregnancy, or suffer from infertility or pregnancy loss, wondering where they belong.
We have long needed a discussion about proper discernment, what it means and how couples should use it to make decisions about their family. The problem seems to have two facets: one, a lack of sound catechesis on proper discernment; and two, a lack of understanding of how fertility awareness (or NFP) actually works.
In brief, fertility awareness is the science of observing specific biomarkers that indicate a woman’s fertile and infertile patterns as God designed them. Discernment, with regard to family planning, uses the information gathered through fertility awareness to invite God into an ongoing conversation between husband and wife about how God is calling them to be generous on a cycle-to-cycle basis. For this post, I’ll be focusing on discernment.
I’ve found that the word “stewardship” perfectly describes how we should think about responsible parenthood.
Back to Basics
Before we dig into discernment, we need to take a brief look at what the Church teaches about sex and family planning.
There are two purposes of sex, and they are dually primary: union and procreation (see: Gen. 1: 27-28; Gen. 2: 22-24; Mark 10: 6-9; Canon Law 1055; CCC 1643 and 2369; Gaudium et Spes; Humanae Vitae; Casti Connubii). This means that every sexual act between spouses must never intentionally destroy, subvert, or withhold the procreative functions of either man or woman, and that both spouses must seek to love each other with an authentic love, avoiding sin or using one another as a means to an end, whether for pleasure or for a child. Sex, therefore, has two ends, babies and bonding—which makes sense. The two cannot be fruitful and multiply unless they become one flesh, and union of husband and wife is necessary for building a loving, stable home in which to educate children.
Now let’s look at valid reasons to avoid a pregnancy. Pope Paul VI gave us the clearest explanation in Humanae Vitae:
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. (Humanae Vitae, 10)
Notice the Holy Father gives four categories of factors to consider when deciding whether to avoid or achieve a pregnancy: physical, economic, psychological, and social. Many are surprised to learn that the rules the Church lays out are fairly gray, and this is where a lot of Catholic couples probably get stuck and ask, “What is all of this supposed to look like in my particular situation?”
A good friend of mine noted that she and her husband, after having their sixth child, had decided they should not have anymore. “I need to be a good steward of what I have,” my friend said. Ever since, I’ve found that the word “stewardship” perfectly describes how we should think about responsible parenthood.
I believe the reason the Church is so vague about serious reasons to avoid pregnancy is precisely because She recognizes the responsibility of stewardship bestowed on every husband and wife through the sacrament of marriage. These two people whom God joins together are purposefully tasked with loving each other as God loves them, and helping each other get to heaven. It is their job to care for both themselves and the other, and to take responsibility for all that comes with the vocation of marriage. This includes: their fertility; their living children; the mental, physical and emotional health of the whole family; their extended families and neighbors; their finances; their living situation; and other larger considerations beyond these. It is all their particular vineyard to steward.
Consequently, the four categories laid out in Humanae Vitae will be applied differently in every single marriage. Though the sacrament of marriage is ancient, each individual marriage is completely new because it is composed of two unique and unrepeatable persons.
This is precisely where discernment comes in.
Proper discernment can be thought of as a wonderfully choreographed dance between reason and faith, both gifts of God that complement one another. Discernment is practical, never dismissing the facts of a situation as part of the decision making process (ie. a sick child, mentally overwhelmed spouse, financial distress, etc.), while also pushing us to remain open to taking a step in faith (aka. a little bit blind). It makes sense that the thought of taking such a leap—and both avoiding and achieving pregnancy can require this leap—will be overwhelming if we save discernment only for major life decisions.
An easy way to rethink discernment is to start saying yes to God in small moments every day, of learning to tune into His voice as He gently calls us, and to ask of everything we do whether it leads us closer to heaven or further away. How often do we get an idea to stop scrolling Instagram to pay attention to our kids or say a prayer for a friend. Perhaps we felt a nudge to offer the cashier at the grocery store a smile and complement their haircut. Maybe we were compelled to reach out to a friend we hadn’t talked to in a while and check in.
By saying yes in each of these small moments, we learn to hear how God speaks to us. If we respond in prompt obedience, we learn that He is in fact a loving Father who will push us out of our comfort zones, but only so He can give us a life more abundant. This builds trust, which is the bedrock of submission to His will.
You can see how cultivating this “tuning in” in small moments can make us more open to hearing what God may call us to in regards to our families; we become more open to taking a leap when we feel that call even without having all the information we’d like.
The question of discernment about family size then becomes simple: “How is God calling