“Ask a Priest: What Does the Church Say If NFP Fails?”

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Q: A friend was telling me that her father’s cousin had 21 children. This to me sounds impossible. I’m not sure if this person used the rhythm method and it wasn’t working or she just didn’t use anything at all, and just had all the kids she could have. I know that the Catechism states that you have to be responsible when having children and that you shouldn’t have all the children possible. My question is: If someone uses the rhythm method or NFP but it does not work for them and they end up having too many children, what would the Church recommend? Would the couple have to live in separate rooms and start living as brother and sister without any marital relations for years? I have never had any children because I married too late so I find it hard to relate, and imagine this would be very hard. Besides, for me God gave me a different path in life because I worked all my life so that I could live with my mother and be there for her. I hope you have some encouraging words. Thanks. – O.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: First, it’s good not to try to make any judgments about this couple with the 21 children. They might, in fact, have welcomed every one of those children as a gift of God, which they are.

My hunch is that the couple did not use natural family planning (unless they used it in order to have children). NFP is much more reliable than the old rhythm method for avoiding pregnancy.

The Church does encourage responsible parenthood. It doesn’t force anyone to have as many children as possible. But nor does it discourage large families. The key thing is that the couple can reasonably handle a big family, in the sense that no one goes hungry or neglected.

Yet even in cases where unexpected pregnancies occur, the Church encourages couples to rely on God’s providence.

If that sounds idealistic, then consider the alternative. Are we to think that God will not provide for the children? That God will abandon the couple in their mission to raise children? That kind of thinking hints at a weak faith.

By the way you worded your question, you seem to envision a worst-case scenario. The question seems to imply that lots of children are a mistake, and that the only solution is years-long celibacy for the couple.

But children are a gift of God, and they represent the future. Unfortunately, many cultures and nations today are infected by an anti-child bias. It’s little wonder that so many countries now have below-replacement birthrates. Japan’s population is declining already, as are many countries in Eastern Europe. (For sobering reading see the Population Research Institute website.)

What will happen in the future, as the elderly outnumber children, is a bit scary to consider. Such are the fruits of contraception and abortion and other factors.

Now, if your path was to take care of your mom and marry later, then that could be the fastest path to holiness. But others are called to different paths — some to have big families. Those folks, too, we have to support with our prayers and other types of assistance if need be.

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