Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
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According to an unpublished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.
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
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
achieved a pregnancy
within six months.
can also help detect
reproductive health problems.
Here is an example
from my book, Natural
Family Planning Blessed
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
What’s the problem?
The Church considers artificial
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
all four of these
using artificial contraception
be total because it
unitive and the procreative
intercourse in a way
that Natural Family
Planning never does,
even when a couple
is using it to avoid
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.”
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.
Next: What It Means to Be Catholic (by Rev. Joseph M. Champlin)