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The Role of Discernment in NFP

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?”

Responsible Parenthood

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.

Tuning 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 me to love my spouse and steward all He has given us right now?” This is what it means to be open to life. We are called to be open to the life God has planned for us, to constantly give our omniscient God permission to act within our marriage and our sex life as He pleases, especially when that yes is difficult.

Being Present

One of my favorite books is Searching for and Maintaining Peace by Fr. Jacques Phillipe. I recommend this book here because, within the process of discernment, there is bound to be error. There is always the possibility that we act selfishly when planning our families, and once we realize we have, there can be whiffs of scrupulosity that lead us to be frustrated with our failings. Fr. Phillipe powerfully notes,

“How many times do we lose our peace because we find that our sanctification is not progressing rapidly enough, that we still have too many faults? But this does nothing but delay things!”

It is often our impatience with our weaknesses more than the weaknesses themselves that make our spiritual growth difficult.

The essence of discernment is living in the present moment, making decisions based on what is right—right now. The beautiful thing about fertility awareness and the process of discernment within that discipline is that a husband and wife only need to make decisions about avoiding or achieving for one cycle. Because there is no dramatic interference with a woman’s hormones or sterilization of either spouse, the decision can be revisited the next cycle and the next, and the answer may change or stay the same in response to their circumstances. As Christ told us, “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.” (Matthew 6: 34)

To close, I offer you a beautiful prayer of discernment by Fr. Phillipe from his book:

Lord, I have thought about it and prayed and know your will.

I do not see it clearly, but I am not going to trouble myself any further.

I am not going to spend hours wracking my brain.

I am deciding such and such a thing because,

all things carefully considered, it seems to me the best thing to do.

And I leave everything in Your hands.

I know well that, even if I am mistaken, You will not be displeased with me,

for I have acted with good intentions.

And if I have made a mistake, I know that You are able to draw good from this error.

It will become for me a source of humility and I will learn something from it!

In Vino Veritas,

Emily Frase


Emily Frase is a south Louisiana native living in northern Virginia with her husband and two children. After receiving her Bachelor's degree in Architecture, she worked in the nonprofit world in DC for five years. In 2018, Emily founded her the Total W(h)ine blog where she shares her deep passion for living all aspects of the Catholic faith in a joyful and honest way, especially marriage, motherhood, NFP and fertility awareness. She is the co-founder and president of the nonprofit organization FAbM Base, a new fertility awareness database coming soon.

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