Investigating NFP: Pius XII

Now that we've examined Pius XII's address to widwives, let's take a look at his address to the Directors of the Associations for Large Families of Rome and of Italy, given about seven years later.

"But you do not represent just any families at all; you are and represent large families, those most blessed by God and specially loved and prized by the Church as its most precious treasures. For these families offer particularly clear testimony to three things that serve to assure the world of the truth of the Church's doctrine and the soundness of its practice, and that redound, through good example, to the great benefit of all other families and of civil society itself."

"Wherever you find large families in great numbers, they point to: the physical and moral health of a Christian people; a living faith in God and trust in His Providence; the fruitful and joyful holiness of Catholic marriage."

Aha! We haven't yet found a decent definition of "serious" and "grave" reasons for avoiding conception of a/another child, however what we have is praise for large families. They are "most blessed by God and specially loved and prized by the Church as its most precious treasures" and they give "clear testimony to three things that serve to assure the world of the truth of the Church's doctrine and the soundness of its practice". What are these doctrines and practices? Unfettered and unimpeded fecundity. It is very clear from reading this that the Church wishes that all couples could have large families. This desire should be one of the teachings that inform people's consciences, which they must employ when discerning whether or not to periodically abstain from intercourse. There's are a couple catches to this, though. Firstly, we do not know exactly what Pius meant by "large". Secondly, we must be careful that we do not exalt fertility "beyond all measure", as the previous address warned. Erring on the side of caution, perhaps one could say that, all things being equal, families should grow to be as large as circumstances allow.

"Surely, one of the most harmful aberrations that has appeared in modern society with its pagan tendencies is the opinion of those who are eager to classify fruitfulness in marriage as a 'social malady,' and who maintain that any nation that finds itself thus afflicted must exert every effort and use every means to cure the disease. This is the basis for the propaganda that goes under the name of 'planned parenthood'; at times it is promoted by persons and organizations who command respect because of their positions in other fields, but who, unfortunately, have taken a stand in this matter which must be condemned." [emphasis mine]

"On the part of Catholics, We must urge the wide dissemination of the principle, firmly founded on truth, that the only way to protect the physical and moral health of the family and of society is through whole-hearted obedience to the laws of nature, or rather of the Creator, and most of all by fostering a sacred, heart-felt respect for them."

"In this matter, everything depends on the intention. You can multiply laws and make the penalties heavier; you can give irrefutable proofs of the stupidity of birth-control theories and of the harm that comes from putting them into practice; but as long as there is no sincere determination to let the Creator carry on His work as He chooses, then human selfishness will always find new sophistries and excuses to still the voice of conscience (to the extent it can), and to carry on abuses."

"In this matter, everything depends on the intention." The Church can, and has put, laws in place forbidding artificial birth control, but laws alone will not change behavior. Those who intend to act contraceptively will find ways to do so within the letter of the law while entirely ignoring its spirit. Even periodic abstinence can be used contraceptively. We can either work with God or against Him. If we wish to work against Him, we can start by guiding our lives by a contraceptive mentality. That's also a sure way to be a bad Catholic. Good Catholics should be open to life and encourage such openness in those around them. Note that begrudging acceptance of children is not true openness to life. Put more succintly, one should accept children joyfully and gratefully and only postpone conception with regret. On a side note, those "who are eager to classify fruitfulness in marriage as a 'social malady'" will not be pleased with these statistics.

"Now the value of the testimony offered by the parents of large families lies not only in their unequivocal and forceful rejection of any deliberate compromise between the law of God and human selfishness, but also in their readiness to accept joyfully and gratefully these priceless gifts of God-their children – in whatever number it may please Him to send them."

"This kind of attitude frees married couples from oppressive anxieties and remorse, and, in the opinion of outstanding doctors, creates the ideal psychological conditions for the healthy development of children born of the marriage. For, right at the beginning of these new lives, it eliminates all those worries and disturbances that can so easily leave physical or psychological scars on the mother or child."

I'm not certain what "oppressive anxieties and remorse" and "worries and disturbances" he's referring to, but I can safely say that he believes that free acceptance of multiple children is physically and psychologically better (than small families) for all involved. I'd like to see some proof of that, but for now I'll humor His Holiness and take his word for it. 😉 If anyone can to studies that support Pius' claims I'd be grateful.

"Again, good common sense has always and everywhere looked upon large families as a sign, a proof, and a source of physical health, and history makes no mistake when it points to violation and abuse of the laws governing marriage and procreation as the primary cause of the decay of peoples."

"Far from being a 'social malady,' large families are a guarantee of the moral and physical health of a people. Virtues flourish spontaneously in homes where a baby's cries always echo from the crib, and vice is put to flight, as if it has been chased away by the childhood that is renewed there like the fresh and invigorating breath of spring."

Far from being detrimental to societies, large families are a sign of their health. As families shrink, vices grow and societies crumble. Or at least, so says Pius. Some support for this claim would have been helpful.

"So let the weak and selfish take their example from you; let the nation continue to be loving and grateful toward you for all the sacrifices you have taken upon yourselves to raise and educate its citizens; just as the Church is pleased with you for enabling her to offer, along with you, ever healthier and larger groups of souls to the sanctifying activity of the divine Spirit."

The next time someone asks you if Catholics are supposed to have twelve kids, tell them, "If we are able, yes." Obviously, those pesky "serious" and "grave" reasons apply here and determine ability, though. To choose to have a small family, i.e., to have a small family not because of circumstances beyond one's ability to control, is to be "weak and selfish". In other words, "I just don't want a lot of kids" isn't a valid reason for a small family.

Comments 18

  1. Squat wrote:

    your “these statistics” link is a dead-end.

    Posted 19 Mar 2006 at 4:42 pm
  2. Funky Dung wrote:


    Posted 19 Mar 2006 at 5:40 pm
  3. Squat wrote:

    I’m also reading some Pius XII encyclicals and addresses and found this in an address to a concourse of women of Catholic Action and all their helpers from all the Dioceses of Italy reguarding the raising of children on The Feast of Christ the King, Oct.26,1941.

    “Train their hearts. Frequently the decision of a man’s destiny, the ruin of his character, or a grave danger threatening him, may be traced to his childish years when his heart was spoiled by the fond flatter, silly fussing, and foolish indulgence of misguided parents. The impressionable little heart became accustomed to see all things revolve and gravitate around it, to find all things yeilding to its will and caprice, and so there took root in it that boundless egoism of which parents themselves were later to become the first victims! All this is often the just penalty of the selfishness of parents who deny their only child the joy of having little brothers and sisters who, sharing in the mother’s love, would have accustomed him to think of others besides himself”

    Posted 19 Mar 2006 at 9:50 pm
  4. Sean wrote:

    I’ve enjoyed reading these posts and comments. It has certainly been enlightening. But I have a suggestion for a new topic, once this one has been sufficiently beaten into submission… What about folks who are single? And I mean single for a long time, single beyond the point at which they are likely to have children, maybe single for life? The Bible says “be fruitful and multiply”, yet the Bible also says if you can do it, its better not to marry.

    Some of us have managed to hit 40 without being married, and without the supernatural graces of ordination or religious vows helping us along. Single folks are single for tons of different reasons… some good, some bad. And I’ve even heard “singleness” referred to as a vocation like marriage or the priesthood. I have a hard time accepting the “single as vocation” concept outside of vowed or ordained religious life.

    But anyway, I’d be interested in some discussion on that topic… if anyone else is. If not, I’ll happily read whatever topic’s up next. :)

    Posted 20 Mar 2006 at 12:12 am
  5. Stuff wrote:

    Just a couple quick thoughts:

    I’m not entirely sure about the use of the word “eugenics,” and maybe someone with more specifically medical training would know more, but I’m pretty sure that there are very rare instances in which both parents are carriers of recessive genes that can cause miscarriage and/or extremely serious disease in almost every pregnancy. Or, at least, this may have been the case at the time of Pius’ writings of these documents. In such a case, I think the Church’s stance on “eugenics” is such that if you are absolutely certain to only miscarry or that every child you bear will die within a few years of birth, your circumstances are grave enough to postpone conception pending medical advances or whatever. Again, just a thought, no real backing.

    Also, as much as we all like finding hard data to support conclusions, I don’t think any exists for Pius’ assertions about the relationship between large families and individual/societal health. I will mention here that I toyed with the idea of writing a report on the effects of birth order/family size in my pre-pharmacy days (trying out of mainly pride and vanity to prove that my family of 5 kids, as disfunctional as we are, is still healthier than yours with 1 or 2 ;)). I found that most of the psychology studies that were done were performed from the viewpoint of proving that small families were just as good as large families, not the other way around. My conclusion is that we only study things that are not familiar, or not the norm. For such a long period of history, large families were considered normal and healthy, so no one felt they needed to prove that; it’s only when people started trying to limit family size that we had to prove it was O.K.

    One last thought about large families being willing to “sacrifice” one or more children to religious vocations. While I think you make a valid point, I don’t think yours outweighs the Pope’s: when you look at the families of saints, they’re usually big and there are usually a bunch of them that are at least Blessed, whatever they’re vocation. We just watched the movie “Therese,” by the way, and every single one of the daughters of the Martin family was a religious.:)

    Hmmmm…if that was the last thought, I guess this one is an afterthought!
    Sean, there is a whole big section entitled “Virginity for the Sake of the Kingdom” in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body that might be helpful to you. I think your situation is worth discussing, too!

    Posted 20 Mar 2006 at 1:34 pm
  6. Jerry wrote:

    Sean, I’d also recommend checking out some of the literature surrounding Opus Dei and its founder, Jose Maria Escriva. BYOCT (Bring your own conspiracy theories)

    Posted 20 Mar 2006 at 2:03 pm
  7. Anonymous Poster wrote:

    Posted 20 Mar 2006 at 3:12 pm
  8. Spacemouse wrote:

    Re the Eugenics issue:

    It’d be nice if someone with a background in the original language (Italian, in this case, since it’s an address to Midwives?) could look at the word that’s translated as “eugenic.” Going from the English, eugenic can simply mean “Relating or adapted to the production of good or improved offspring.” The Church doesn’t forbid couples to seek to have healthy (“good”) offspring: genetic screening and in-utero diagnosis ARE allowed for that very purpose. The Church does forbid parents to abort children with genetic conditions, of course, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Presumably, as Stuff points out, we’re just talking about parents avoiding conception because of genetic abnormalities likely to affect their children. With genetic counseling, it is indeed possible to get a good idea (ahead of time) what the odds are that a couple will have children with various disorders.

    In such a case, I think the Church’s stance on “eugenics” is such that if you are absolutely certain to only miscarry or that every child you bear will die within a few years of birth, your circumstances are grave enough to postpone conception pending medical advances or whatever. Again, just a thought, no real backing.

    This was pretty close to what I was going to say, except that I don’t know that you have to be “absolutely certain” that all the offspring will be miscarried/will die shortly after birth. I don’t think there are hard and fast rules, but I think a strong likelyhood of producing children with serious diseases is sufficient to justify avoiding conception.

    The fact that there aren’t hard guidelines saying “there must be more than a 50% likelyhood that the child will die” or “there must be a 99% chance that the child will die” may seem frustrating, but different couples have different breaking points. One couple might be willing to conceive, bear, and lose several children because of the hope that a healthy child might arrive. Another couple simply might be so broken hearted over one lost child that they could not face the probability that their next one would be similarly lost. For the second couple, a mere probability (rather than a certainty) that a future child would be lost may constitute a grave reason.

    Like Stuff, though, I don’t have anything “hard” to back that theory up with. It’s just the impression I’ve gathered from what I’ve read.

    Posted 20 Mar 2006 at 5:36 pm
  9. Funky Dung wrote:

    “The most merciful thing that a large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.” – Maragret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood


    Posted 20 Mar 2006 at 5:45 pm
  10. sibert wrote:

    On NFP, various addresses, and the aggregate of Catholic traditional writings:
    “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR COME and NEST IN ITS BRANCHES.”
    Examine the symbolism of birds in the Bible…

    Posted 21 Mar 2006 at 9:26 pm
  11. Funky Dung wrote:

    Since I lack a concordance, could you humor us by at least pointing us to some verses?

    Posted 21 Mar 2006 at 10:31 pm
  12. Louise wrote:

    On the “eugenics” thing. I have a good friend who has four children. She and her husband use NFP and will be trying not to conceive any more children, because she now has a number of very serious medical problems which require her to take lots of prescribed medication which is seriously harmful to a growing baby in utero.

    If a child is conceived while she is taking such medication, there is a serious risk to the child’s life either in utero or after it is born. I think that in her situation, they are right to use NFP. It goes without saying, that if they do conceive, they will accept the child with love.

    Posted 21 Mar 2006 at 11:57 pm
  13. Tom Smith wrote:

    “And I’ve even heard ‘singleness’ referred to as a vocation like marriage or the priesthood. I have a hard time accepting the ‘single as vocation’ concept outside of vowed or ordained religious life.”

    Even though one inevitably sounds like an ass by saying this, I agree that it’s hard to see how there’d be a vocation to the single state. There are a few reasons that I don’t think that there exists a call to the single life. First, the three recognized vocations (priesthood, religious life, and matrimony) require one to take positive action (be it ordination, the vowing of the evangelical counsels, or nuptial vows) to enter, whereas all one need do to exercise single life is chill. Also, all three of the recognized vocations require a public profession of one’s desire to receive the status of that state of life (ordination, solemn profession of vows, or profession of marital vows). The approbation of the Church is required to enter the priesthood, religious life, or marriage, but not single life. Last, there is always a period of discernment before entering the priesthood (seminary training), religious life (one’s novitiate), and marriage (dating, pre-marital spiritual guidance), but not single life.

    We see that the single life does not share any of these things with the three known vocations; that’s why I think it’s rather clear that the single state does not represent a true vocation.

    Posted 26 Mar 2006 at 2:22 pm
  14. Laudemus wrote:

    But what about consecrated virgins? They are not members of religious congregations — they are laywomen, but consecrated to a life of chastity.

    Posted 26 Mar 2006 at 8:25 pm
  15. edey wrote:

    do they have to take any kind of action? do they have a public profession of vows? do they have a period of discernment? as far as i know, they don’t have a public profession of vows, but they might have the other two. enlighten me.

    Posted 26 Mar 2006 at 8:40 pm
  16. Spacemouse wrote:

    I know this is a late comment, but I’ve been meaning to comment on the “not rare” issue, since I do think this is crucial.

    If you spend any time at all dealing with probability and statistics, you’ll realize that “rare” and “not rare” are very vague concepts that need to be represented by numbers to be meaningful. Saying that difficulties “not rarely arise” only tells us that they might not be statistical outliers, which doesn’t tell us much.

    I think it’s worth asking whether Pius XII was a statistician, though. That is: is there any indication that he used the expression “not rare” (or rather, whatever the original was) in a statistical sense? I ask because if you look in a thesaurus, “uncommon” is listed as a synonym for “rare.” In English, the expression “not uncommon” would be a way of saying “common.” In other words, the reason that some people read “not rare” to mean that serious/grave reasons are common is because that’s what “not rare” DOES mean in normal English useage. I submit that an unbiased reader -one who came to the document with no opinion as to how common grave reasons are- would read “not rare” as roughly synonymous with “not uncommon.” (Perhaps there’s a rare to experiment on readers to find out?)

    It’s always possible that the translation is at fault, but to suggest that “not rare” simply means “not a statistical outlier” and that it’s thus possible that grave reasons are still pretty uncommon seems to me to be grasping at linguistic straws, unless there’s a reason for thinking that the translator had the statistical meaning rather than the commonly accepted meaning of the words in mind when he chose the phrase “not rare” instead of “not uncommon.”

    It’s true that “not uncommon” would still be vague, in that it wouldn’t give any indication of how much of the time an “average” couple might spend avoiding conception- but perhaps the vagueness is there because that Pius XII knew that it wasn’t possible for him (or any theologian) to predict how many times in the average couple’s life they’d have grave reasons to avoid.

    Posted 27 Mar 2006 at 12:03 am
  17. Jeremy Pierce wrote:

    For some women, pregnancy and/or childbirth could be fatal. How should they procede? Well, the answer seems to be that they should entirely refrain from the marital act. NFP is not perfect birth control. In fact, any such method might be forbidden by the Church as being hostile to fertility. Therefore, such an at-risk woman might unwittingly conceive and endanger her life and/or the life of her child.

    Getting on a plane could be fatal. So could going for a walk. In a case with similar chances of conception to the risk of dying on the highway in an accident, would you say that it thus makes it wrong to get on the highway? Or isn’t it just better to say that some things in life are worth doing, even if there’s a small chance of risking something serious happening?

    Posted 02 Apr 2006 at 8:21 pm
  18. Funky Dung wrote:

    That’s not quite the meaning I intended. My point was that if the danger of death for mother or child is great enough that one would periodically abstain (during fertile periods), one should totally abstain or not abstain at all (assuming that this health problem is the only grave reason for avoiding conception). That is, if you are so concerned about the health problem that you feel the need to rely on the 98%+ pregnancy avoidance success rate of correctly-used NFP, either you have underestimated the threat and should avoid intercourse entirely or you have overestimated it and should not be periodically abstaining. If it’s “a risk you are willing to take”, you’re essentially playing Russian roullete with one or more lives at stake. It’d be bad enough to endanger the mother’s life like that, but to play games with a child’s life is unconscionable.

    Posted 02 Apr 2006 at 11:10 pm

Trackbacks & Pingbacks 7

  1. From all kinds of time... on 06 Apr 2006 at 12:34 pm

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  7. From Ales Rarus - A Rare Bird, A Strange Duck, One Funky Blog » Investigating NFP: Pius XI on 11 May 2006 at 12:54 pm

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