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In this Update we’ll explain just what Natural Family Planning is, and why the Church embraces it.

Catholic Update

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Natural Family Planning
Key to Intimacy

by Fletcher Doyle

Natural Family Planning is one topic guaranteed to make parishioners put down their bulletin inserts and return their attention to the homily! Yet Natural Family Planning, the only Church-approved method of family planning, is ignored by a majority of Catholics in the United States.

According to an unpublished tabulation of the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth from the National Center for Health Statistics, only 3.6 percent of Catholic women using some form of family planning are using Natural Family Planning. Why the disconnect? In this Update we’ll explain just what NFP is, and why the Church embraces it.

It works!

Natural Family Planning is considered, even among its proponents, an inadequate title for the various natural methods of fertility regulation. No one has been able to come up with a short phrase that describes all of the personal, medical and spiritual benefits experienced by married couples who use those methods.

Natural Family Planning, NFP, is a way, John Paul II explained in his Theology of the Body teachings, for spouses to encounter some of the innocence the first couple experienced in their one-flesh union, when they were naked without shame and they loved according to God’s plan. Let’s look at some particulars.

Just what is Natural Family Planning? Medical science has discovered that women display two visible signs of fertility during their menstrual cycle that are highly accurate in determining when they ovulate, that is, generate an egg cell that can lead to pregnancy. The two signs are cervical mucus and basal at-rest body temperature. The several methods of NFP place different emphasis on these signs–several do not use temperature at all—but in each case these signs are charted daily. (Men aren’t observed because their biology is different; it does not respond in a predictable, cyclical way.)

Here we encounter the first difficulty with NFP. A man who can watch a movie in which dozens of people die violent deaths can be grossed out by a mention of cervical mucus! This is too bad because this mucus contains a lot of useful information.

The character of cervical mucus changes during a woman’s cycle, becoming the color and consistency of egg whites at ovulation and often disappearing afterward. At ovulation, basal body temperature rises. This time of ovulation is known as the “fertile” or “peak” period. Seventy-two hours after the peak period, the chances of conceiving are practically zero. A couple who decide that now is not the time to add a new child to the family abstains from intercourse during this fertile time. All rumors aside, this works.

A large study on the effectiveness of the sympto-thermal method (or STM, which uses temperature and mucus observations) was published online in February 2007 in Human Reproduction, Europe’s largest reproductive medicine journal. For a method to be considered as effective as the pill when used correctly, one woman in 100 would get pregnant. The rate for the STM was far better for avoiding unwanted pregnancy: Only one woman out of 250 got pregnant.

Conversely, knowing when a woman ovulates can also help couples conceive. Dr. Thomas Hilgers of the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction wrote in The Medical Applications of Natural Family Planning that 98 percent of couples using his Creighton Model of NFP (mucus observations only, a method developed at Creighton University) achieved a pregnancy within six months.

Mucus observations can also help detect reproductive health problems. Here is an example from my book, Natural Family Planning Blessed Our Marriage:

One woman was put on the pill at age 16 for irregular periods. Engaged six years later, she and her fiancé decided she should get off the pill. They learned NFP. Charting helped the doctor diagnose her with polycystic ovary syndrome, the reason for her irregular periods.

The pill had masked the symptoms, which showed she almost never ovulated. With the help of the fertility drug Clomid and NFP, they had twins. Later, she showed signs of fertility for one day, and the couple conceived the one they call their “miracle child.”

Here is another common reproductive health problem. A woman whose time between ovulation and menstruation is short may not be producing enough progesterone (a hormone). This can make her prone to miscarriage. A doctor can detect this by reading her charts and order preventive measures.


What’s the problem?

The Church considers artificial contraception “intrinsically evil” and teaches that Natural Family Planning is “in conformity with the objective criteria of morality” (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], #2370). The reason has nothing to do with whether or not any method works, though. It has to do with the nature of life itself.

Pope John Paul II gave 129 talks on the Theology of the Body between 1979 and 1984 (from the outset of his papacy) that were eventually published as a book, The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan. In those teachings, he says that when we have questions about the relationship of men and women we should refer to Mark 10:2ff and Matthew 19:3ff, where the Pharisees ask Jesus about divorce.

Our Lord replies: “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but in the beginning, it was not so.” By this Christ directs us back to creation, and to God’s original intention for us. In the beginning, we learn that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gn 1:27).

So when Adam’s gaze first falls on Eve, he doesn’t say “She’s hot”! He says, rather, “Here at last is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” He sees someone else, equal in dignity and also made in the image of God. He also sees someone whose body is meant for union with his. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gn 2:24).

This one-flesh union is tied to procreation when God tells Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply (Gn 1:28). So there are two purposes to sex, union and procreation, “established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break” (CCC, #2366).

The late pope expanded this theme when he commented about what it means to be made in the image of God. We obviously don’t look like God, who is pure spirit and has no body. Man has a body and a spirit and so is a union of the material and the spiritual world. The human body makes visible what is invisible, the spiritual and the divine, which is the image of God.

Also, we know that God is a communion of three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our marriages can be a communion of persons, an image of the Holy Trinity, when we become one flesh in a way that is open to life. In this way we are given the privilege of being co-creators with God of human life. This is why the Church considers sexual union to be holy.

Adam and Eve experienced this communion of persons when they were naked without shame, which means they loved rightly as God loves. How many of us can’t look at ourselves naked in the mirror without being ashamed? But this has nothing to do with vanity. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve looked at each other as equal in dignity, not with lust and certainly not as someone to be used for selfish sexual pleasure.

After all, God doesn’t “hook-up” or do one-night stands. When you use someone, you are not imaging God. How many of you have felt used by leering eyes? This is why man and woman covered themselves after the Fall. Naked, they became afraid and ashamed: They had become users of the other, no longer pure lovers.

We are called by the gospel to love as God loves. In figuring how God loves, we turn to the example of Jesus. Scripture tells us Christ gives his body freely (“No one takes my life from me, I lay it down of my own accord,” Jn 10:18). He gives his body without reservation (“he loved them to the last,” Jn 13:1). He gives his body faithfully (“I am with you always,” Mt 28:20). And he gives his body fruitfully (“I came that they may have life,” Jn 10:10). His love is free, total, faithful and fruitful.

Natural Family Planning preserves all four of these characteristics. Sex using artificial contraception can never be total because it withholds fertility. Artificial contraception separates the unitive and the procreative meaning of intercourse in a way that Natural Family Planning never does, even when a couple is using it to avoid a pregnancy.

Growing in holiness

Avoiding pregnancy may require the couple to abstain from sex for up to 10 days. Here we encounter the second difficulty with NFP. People who teach NFP say that when they mention abstaining many eyes glaze over, much as a teen’s eyes do when he or she is being told to clean a room or study harder.

No attempt will be made to minimize the difficulty of abstaining within marriage (although what this means varies a lot for various couples). However, we must remember that marriage is a sacrament and sacraments confer divine grace. You might remember from Catholic teaching that sacraments are made up as form and matter. The form of marriage is the vows; the matter is sexual union, which is why the spouses are the ministers of the sacrament. When a man and a woman say at the altar that they will love one another faithfully and totally, they can live those vows in truth by using Natural Family Planning.

Grace is freely given. But living out those vows can attune us to grace’s presence; the vows can help us to grow in holiness. Periods of abstinence require self-control, chastity and modesty. Pornography or even “soft porn” such as a swimsuit issue of a sports magazine can encourage sexual compulsion. A compulsion can drive us to take rather than to give, and love is always self-giving. Self-control allows men or women to say good-night when our spouses are exhausted and want to sleep. Physical attraction, which is what brought most couples together, can be tempered with modesty. As John Paul II wrote, marital chastity allows us to see the other as a gift and allows us a participation in the interior life of God himself, in his holiness.

To give of oneself is to act like Christ. And to act like Christ is to be truly human since this is the way God created us to be. Pope Benedict, in his encyclical God Is Love, wrote that erotic love tends to rise “in ecstasy towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.”

This path, explains Benedict, is guided by agape, the Greek term we see in the Bible, which is “self-sacrificing love.” This is what happens when you abstain for the good of the other. He adds, “Purification and growth in maturity are called for, and these also pass through the path of renunciation. Far from rejecting or poisoning Eros, they heal it and restore its true grandeur.”

This path of agape is not the experience of most people in a time in which almost everyone goes through failed sexual relationships, even before marriage. This separation of sexuality from true giving—seen as the “freeing of sexuality”—has led to a loss of trust in churches that regulate sexual activity. Some women especially believe that by living marriage as the Church teaches they will have to give back gains in education and employment.

Yet in On the Christian Family in the Modern World (Familiaris Consortio), Pope John Paul II extolled these gains, applauding the “more lively awareness of personal freedom and greater attention to personal relationships in marriage, to promoting the dignity of women. . . .” He decried, though, the “disturbing degradation of some fundamental values: a mistaken theoretical and practical concept of the independence of spouses in relation to each other” and “the appearance of a truly contraceptive mentality.”

Contraceptive mentality

Artificial contraception promotes this mentality, in which people disassociate sex (union) from childbearing (procreation). For example, the Guttenmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood (which strongly promotes birth control, as well as abortion), reports that 54 percent of women experiencing an unplanned pregnancy were using birth control when they got pregnant, and that 49 percent of unwanted pregnancies ended in abortion. Among women using birth control when they got pregnant, 58 percent aborted their children.

Ephesians calls us to be subject to one another out of a reverence for Christ. Couples practicing NFP must live this way. This can build their trust in the Catholic Church. The couples I interviewed for my book all went on a faith journey, whether that was their intention or not. They grew in wonder of God’s plan for sex and marriage, thankful that God gave them the ability to be co-creators of human life and also that God left them most of the month to express their love without a chance of pregnancy. Men marveled at the way God had designed their wives. All felt that if the Church could be right about this, it could be right about its other teachings, too.

Natural Family Planning is not just biological; it has to do with the unity of the whole person: body and spirit. It is all about spouses learning the language of fertility, and then living their marriages by it. It allows couples to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. That way, when their bodies say, “I love you,” they are all the more sure their hearts mean it.

Fletcher Doyle is a copy editor in the sports department at The Buffalo News. He is author of the book Natural Family Planning Blessed Our Marriage: 19 True Stories (Servant Books). He and his wife, Tracy, have two children. He is a graduate of Towson State University.

Next: What It Means to Be Catholic (by Rev. Joseph M. Champlin)


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