As the USCCB’s annual NFP Awareness Week draws to a close, we want to take this opportunity to talk about one of the best-kept secrets in the Catholic Church: natural family planning (NFP) or fertility awareness.
This national campaign corresponds with the anniversary of Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, promulgated on July 25, 1968. While the document was met with controversy both by Catholics and media outlets, it nevertheless clearly expresses Catholic beliefs around human sexuality and responsible parenthood. And believe it or not, it isn’t a list of “nos” and things you can’t do.
Rather, the Church sees the importance of supporting couples in their role of bringing new life into this world. It is truly an honor for a husband and wife to participate in God’s magnificent creation. Their love bears forth a child and mirrors the love of the Holy Trinity. In his recent apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis writes: “The word of God tells us that the family is entrusted to a man, a woman and their children, so that they may become a communion of persons in the image of the union of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Begetting and raising children, for its part, mirrors God’s creative work.” (n.29)
At the same time, the Church knows very well that couples frequently face very real challenges when carrying out the honor of procreation. Blessed Paul VI noted that responsible parenthood is not only implemented when a husband and wife “prudently and generously” agree to have more children, but also by those who due to “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, …decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.” (Humanae Vitae, n. 10)
Even before Humanae Vitae and well before Pope Francis, Archbishop Carol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, the man who would later become Pope and be canonized as St. John Paul II, required all of his priests to have a working knowledge of fertility awareness so that couples would be encouraged to learn a method before marriage and so that his priests would be more effective when helping people with the challenges of marriage.
Yes, there’s a national campaign to promote NFP and, yes, Church teaching promotes NFP. However, despite living in an era when information is more accessible to more people than ever before, laity and clergy alike tend to not know much about NFP or to have misconceptions, for example confusing it with the outdated and ineffective rhythm method. Then there are those who experience a sort of “ick” factor when it comes to talking about female fertility.
Fortunately, things are changing for both clergy and laity. St. John Seminary in Camarillo currently instructs its student seminarians in the basics of fertility awareness. A more in-depth study is anticipated. Similarly, here in Orange County, the NFP in OC Committee, working with the Diocesan Office of Pastoral Care for Families, has been undertaking efforts to make the various methods more known and available.
Many of us are also unaware of the benefits of NFP. In reality, couples find that NFP becomes a tool that helps them to come together better as a couple. It actually becomes easier to talk about physical intimacy and to help each other enjoy better intimacy. And when couples learn to communicate better about the most intimate issues of sexuality, they end up using the same communication tools to discuss other difficult topics in their marriage, including finances, in-laws, how to raise their children, etc.
In many ways, NFP is pedagogical. When using various forms of contraception, couples don’t have to communicate regularly about sex, the needs of their family, their own needs as individuals, much less God’s plan for their marriage. Since NFP is an ongoing process, couples do in fact have to discuss the various aspects of their lives on a regular basis. And it gets easier with time because they develop better skills as they practice fertility awareness.
Many of us are also trying to live cleaner: green energy, healthier non-synthetic food, etc. But we don’t always apply that to our decisions about family planning. Keep in mind that in April 2005, the World Health Organization identified hormonal contraception (including birth control pills, patches, and implants) as a Class I carcinogen. In other words, many commonly used forms of birth control contain cancer causing ingredients. NFP is 100% natural, nothing artificial.
And although we’ve been taught by our secular environs that using contraception is responsible, contraception has a relatively high failure rate. Consider for example that the pro-abortion Alan Guttmacher Institute found that 46% of all women seeking abortions were not using contraception in the month that they conceived. In other words, 54% of the women seeking abortions had in fact used contraception in the month that they conceived. Presumably, the failure rate is due more to user error than the methods used.
Nevertheless, the various NFP methods have been found to have a higher effective rate in postponing pregnancy. Couple to Couple League reports that the Sympto Thermal Method has a 99% effective rate when used correctly. In a five-year study, the Creighton Fertility Care System found their composite method effectiveness to be up to 99.8%. Billings Ovulation Method was also found to be highly effective with the effectiveness rate of 99.5%.
Because fertility awareness methods effectively identify the couple’s periods of fertility, these methods are also very useful for couples wanting to achieve pregnancy, including many facing fertility challenges.
NFP or fertility awareness isn’t high theology. It’s biology. Basic scientific facts shouldn’t be a mystery.
We are blessed in the Diocese of Orange to have many teachers who facilitate the formation for couples to learn how to use the various methods of fertility awareness. All information regarding classes and contact information can be found on the Diocesan website rcbo.org.
Michael Donaldson is the Director of the Office of Pastoral Care for Families in All Stages for the Diocese of Orange. Pia de Solenni is a moral theologian who serves as the Associate Dean of the Augustine Institute’s new Orange County satellite location at Christ Cathedral Campus.