Yet again, another Facebook group I'm part of has descended into the depths of agony known as "The Grave Reasons Debate."
For those who are not yet initiated, let me sum up:
Someone says, "Does the Church say you can only use NFP for grave reasons?"
A number of folks chime in to say, "Technically that word was used in some translations, but it comes from the Latin and Italian, where grave has a different connotation. In English, the Church is now favoring words like serious reasons, or just cause."
Then everyone's Facebook avatar heads explode because they think sOmEonE iS wRoNG oN thE iNtErNeT
Conversation takes a nasty turn as everyone now debates whether or not NFP is just "Catholic birth control" and if you can use it with a "contraceptive mentality."
I just... don't have time for this anymore.
I address this directly in my NFP Masterclass and NFP Ambassador Training videos because it is important to know the answers to these objections. It is important for Catholics to be well-versed in what the Church teaches, and to understand the implications for how they apply NFP in their own lives. Discernment is important. Being able to extricate discernment about NFP use from what JPII calls "selfish reasons" is important.
So if you really want to to think about that topic, here's a fabulous article by Kevin Miller, PhD, that you should read. Have fun.
What I want to talk about today is actually the virtue of magnanimity and how I think it is so absolutely crucial to understand this virtue in order to be able to converse with with each other respectfully about NFP.
Magnanimity is the virtue which inspires us to reach for great things. Aristotle's definition for magnanimity may not sit particularly well with Christians, but Thomas Aquinas gives us a way to understand magnanimity as that which allows us to reach for excellence and the great things--including virtue and the pursuit of knowledge, Truth, and God. Magnanimity is a virtue which falls under fortitude, the virtue that allows us to pursue things despite difficulties. So for Thomas Aquinas, the magnanimous person is someone who strives for excellence to expand their soul. Magnanimity literally means greatness of soul--to expand the soul to receive the great things. This is absolutely fundamental to the Christian life: to be able to receive the great things from God, and to reach for the great things like heroic virtue.
I genuinely believe that people who want to bring out the "grave reasons" or "contraceptive mentality" arguments are acting from a motivation of magnanimity. And I say this because I genuinely think that they want to make sure that the excellences of virtue in marriage, discernment, and being radically pro-life are actually lived out by people in the Church. They want to make sure that the authentic Church Teaching is being articulated and lived in a way that is in line with our Christian faith, and therefore pleasing to God and good for us in our own pursuit of holiness. So I want to give people the credit for being magnanimous.
Thomas Aquinas is also very quick to point out that magnanimity is a virtue that has a significant amount of related stumbling blocks, including pride and presumption. In order to be truly magnanimous, a soul must have many other balancing virtues. A soul must be humble in order to be magnanimous. A soul must be prudent in order to be magnanimous.
In other words, a magnanimous soul must be expanded so great that it is able to see its own smallness.
This virtue must be tempered, because otherwise it very easily falls into a vice. And I think that this is particularly pertinent for our internet discussions, because in that sort of forum it's relatively easy to fall into the sin of presumption through assumption. I believe that people are trying to be magnanimous, in the sense that they are trying to strive for something great--but for whatever reason, they miss the mark. They end up presuming a greatness in themselves about the way that they are able to understand and articulate and live Church teaching... and they assume that this greatness is not present in somebody else.
So let me give you a real life example of a conversation that I witnessed between two co-workers of mine many years ago, when I worked as a counselor at a pregnancy resource center. The first co-worker was a young woman, just about ready to graduate from college. The second woman was in her early 40s and was married with two children. Here's how the conversation went:
College Girl (CG) to Married Woman (MW): You use NFP, right?
MW: Yes, yes, I do.
CG: But you only have two kids.
MW: Ummm. Yes
CG: How did you discern to not have any more kids?
MW: ... I guess we were just done after two.
CG: I'm not sure I understand. The Church says that you need to have grave reasons to not have a child. Doesn't that seem inconsistent with Church teaching? How can you decide that you're just "done"?
MW: I'm going to go clean up the break room.
I hope that this conversation made you as uncomfortable as it made me, because there's a lot going on here. The interesting thing about this was that I happened to be privy to the confidence of both of these women. So here's what I knew about the background that neither of them knew about each other:
CG was actively discerning marriage with a man who had 11 siblings. Both of them felt very strongly that their call to marriage would include radical openness to life as a visible witness against a Culture of Death. CG knew that her parents had intentionally limited their family size in a way that CG was uncomfortable with, having come to know about the teachings of the Church in this area. She believed that her parents were faithful Catholics, but that they were misinformed about Church Teaching and therefore made bad or even sinful decisions with their family planning. She felt very strongly that it was part of her call to make sure that women and couples understood properly what the Church Teaching was, so they didn't fall into error. For her, this conversation was about making sure that this co-worker--whom she genuinely cared for--was not falling into a similar error. For her, this conversation was a Spiritual Work of Mercy: instructing the ignorant. She was operating from a place of magnanimity as previously defined, trying to strive for excellence in her own life, to follow God's call, and to urge others to do the same.
What CG didn't know about MW is that MW used NFP even though she didn't have to. MW had suffered serious trauma to her reproductive organs, which resulted in severely reduced fertility. Her doctors had put her on hormonal birth control to stave off the hemorrhaging that she was experiencing as a result of these issues, because they didn't know what else to do. She felt incredibly guilty about needing to use hormones, and experienced very deep grief and sorrow that she was not able to have any more children. She didn't like to talk about these things very openly, because they were a great wound for her. Because CG had not approached her with much tact, MW didn't feel comfortable sharing these intimate details with her. CG may have had a genuine desire to be helpful, but she was actually being nosy. MW was uncomfortable with the nosiness and gave CG an answer that amounted to a non-answer.
Remember that quip we used to use as kids?
"Hey, what's in your bag?"
I see a lot of this happening online, where people claim that there are great misinterpretations and misapplications and abuses of Church Teaching happening because someone told them (or they saw/heard them tell someone else) about a reason for postponing pregnancy that didn't seem all that "serious." The reason didn't seem "just." The reason didn't seem "grave." And based on that, this person comes to the conclusion that there are people out there using NFP for frivolous reasons that basically amount to being selfish.
Let's put aside the question of the mechanics of NFP and how they literally are not contraceptive. And let's focus on the fact that the people who are making these assumptions about other people are doing so based on potentially incomplete data. If someone tells them, "No, we're just done after having two kids," it's very likely that that's not the whole story. It's very likely that the person who said this is actually just saying: "It's nunya damn business."
So when we want to have conversations online and we're trying to be magnanimous (because I do want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt), I think something we also have to keep in mind is the huge distinction between instructing the ignorant on points of doctrine and then policing their application of it. That's not something we can actually do because people are not often going to share the real reasons for postponing pregnancy with us. The real reasons may be painful. They may be complicated, or they may just be personal. And it is not any of your business to have access to those reasons.
So theoretically, is it possible for people to use NFP selfishly? Yes, it theoretically is. Any good thing can be used selfishly. But do you actually know—do you actually have PROOF--of anyone who is using it selfishly? No. You don't. Even if they tell you their reasons, they may not be telling you the whole reason. They are probably not telling you the reasons behind the reasons behind the reasons.
So this is just to say: If you ever feel compelled to engage in debate with people about "grave reasons" or "serious reasons" or "just reasons" and whether someone is using NFP selfishly, please continue to aim for magnanimity. What that means is: strive for excellence in virtue. Expect fellow Christians to also strive for great things. But do not neglect humility and the practice of justice, which allows us to be fair in our assessment of other people's motivations, and to leave the judgment up to God.
11/5/2022 08:18:42 am
Very well thought out, well written blog. And I think in so many areas, not just NFP, we need to strive for this virtue of being magnanimous !!
11/7/2022 09:29:08 am
This is a really thoughtful and beautifully written blog post. In our parish our priest is a strong proponent of regular confession. We know he understands more about our fellow parishioners than we do, and he is not shy about giving us guidance. We know that he sometimes reaches out to us with specific requests to help other parishioners that have reasons he cannot share with us.
11/7/2022 09:45:35 am
I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this post. I’m a 50 something mom of 3 adult children. 24,25 & 26. We converted in 2007. I’m fully committed church teaching, and currently am a parish director of evangelization & adult formation.
11/7/2022 01:21:19 pm
Reading your comments, I felt like I was talking to one of the women your age in our parish. The young mothers in your parish need your wisdom; you are a blessing to them!
11/7/2022 01:44:29 pm
The reasons behind the reasons behind the reasons.
11/14/2022 12:27:55 pm
Very well said, Ann-Marie. I have been giving this a lot of thought, so when I got a new student last week, I decided not to ask about what her and her husband’s intentions are. She’ll learn from me how to chart the days for BMS and whether their intention is to abstain or BD is none of my business.
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Christina has been an NFP instructor in the Boston Cross Check Method since 2013. She is on a mission to change conversations about body literacy and NFP within the Catholic Church, through innovative lifelong body literacy programming and support... plus apparently this blog.