Limits of Legitimacy for Use of NFP

Anthony Zimmerman
To NFP List
Jan 10, 2000
Reproduced with Permission

1. I'm one of the lucky children - number four in a family of ten - whose parents didn't know that "three would have been enough to perform their duty." Kristina Johannes mentions that theologians somewhere had speculated that a couple having three children met the demands of justice and asks if anyone came across that idea.

2. Well, in 1957 Fr. Gerald Kelly, S.J. wrote that in a discussion of the limits of duty in procreating offspring, the answer is not clear. Then he added: "However, in a discussion of this topic in June 1952, the majority of a large group of theologians favored the opinion that, generally speaking, married people who have more than four or five children are not only doing their duty, but are acting 'beyond the call of duty"' (Medical Moral Problems, 1957, page 174).

3. He wrote just four years later, as an opinion, that three might meet the obligation in the USA as sufficient to maintain the population needs: "For instance, it has been estimated that a family of three children would sufficiently provide for the needs of the United States" (Fr. John C. Ford, S.J. and Fr. Gerald Kelly, S.J. Contemporary Moral Theology, 1964, page 4211.

4. We all loved to sit around pipe-smoking Kelly to discuss moral theology questions during evenings at conventions. But he would prefer, I am sure, that we think of the statement as "one man's opinion" who is trying hard to think, not as a definitive statement by a moral theologian who is teaching in the name of the Church.

5. Pope Pius XII will go down in history, I believe, as a "Great" moral theologian. He was all in favor of large families, and for many reasons. But he also said:

6. "The Church knows how to consider with sympathy and understanding the real difficulties of the married state in our day. Therefore, in Our last allocution on conjugal morality, We affirmed the legitimacy and, at the same time, the limits - in truth very wide - of a regulation of offspring, which, unlike so-called 'birth control,' is compatible with the law of God. One may even hope (but in this matter the Church naturally leaves the judgment to medical science) that science will succeed in providing this licit method with a sufficiently secure basis, and the most recent information seems to confirm such a hope" (Address of November 26,1951).

7. I like that phrase especially which states that the limits of legitimacy are in truth very wide.

8. When editing the book NATURAL FAMILY PLANNING back in 1980, a colleague was up tight, insisting against me that couples must leave the number children to the Lord instead of regulating births through natural family planning. I said no, use your own head too. We went to Archbishop Tomko who was overseeing our project. He said that the Lord gave us a brain, so use it. Be reasonable. If you get yourself into trouble because you have more children than you can handle well, don't blame the Lord.

9. Some couples thrive wonderfully with large families. They just love children, the more the better, and the children are the happiest in the world. We ten children certainly were. Other couples find rearing children less rewarding, but love their profession with a passion. Bless them too. For family life too, God gave some couples ten talents, others five, and others one.

10. The efforts required to practice NFP successfully are usually - not always but usually - going to sift right reasons for practicing NFP successfully from wrong reasons. In the long run, if the reasons are insufficient, then motivation for the sacrifices weakens. Another baby will be on the way - or use of contraception.

11. Couples differ. Using mathematics to determine the how many children are obligatory is not correct. By and large, however, think of four as the starting minimum for a usually beautiful family life for parents and for children.