My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
The Church throughout the U.S. has just completed a special week dedicated to promoting the true meaning of Natural Family Planning (NFP). Natural family planning is an umbrella term that refers to modern, scientifically accurate, healthy and reliable methods of birth regulation. The Church teaches that parents must be responsible for bringing new life into the world so that they will be able to properly support and educate the children that God gives them.
Unfortunately, our contemporary society has adopted what we might call a “contraceptive mentality,” whereby couples often choose means other than natural ones to prevent conception from occurring. This attitude, unfortunately, is also evidenced among our own Catholic people. However, for the most part, I believe that many Catholic couples do not understand the various forms of natural family planning that can assist them in achieving the natural and God-given ends of their marriage, namely the loving, unitive and life-giving procreative aspects of sexual intercourse within the sacramental covenant of marriage. For this reason, the Catholic Church teaches that couples must not actively intervene to separate their fertility from their physical union. To do so is to show disrespect for an important gift given to married couples by the Creator.
In 1981, Pope John Paul II, now a saint, in his Apostolic Exhortation “Familiaris Consortio,” wrote: “With regard to the question of lawful birth regulation, the ecclesial community at the present time must take on the task of instilling conviction and offering practical help to those who wish to live out their parenthood in a truly responsible way. …This implies a broader, more decisive and more systematic effort to make the natural methods of regulating fertility known, respected and applied.”
In a few weeks for my column on Aug. 23, I will comment on the preparation for the Synod on the Family and, in particular, the working document that speaks about the difficulty of people understanding the use of the term “natural” when it is applied to contraception. It says, “Much of the time, the difference is generally translated by the media in terms of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ contraceptive methods. Consequently, it is understandable why people mistakenly think that such a distinction is a pretext and why the ‘natural’ methods of birth control are considered simply ineffective and impractical. Natural methods for fertility regulation are not natural ‘techniques’ applied to solve problems. Instead, they show a respect for ‘human ecology’ and the dignity of the sexual relationship between husband and wife.”
It is the responsibility of the Church to make known these methods of natural family planning, which differ completely from the various artificial means of contraception that are being promoted in today’s society. Most recently, we have heard about the controversy regarding provision of contraceptives and abortifacient pills and sterilization as part of health care plans. There is a narrow exception for strictly defined religious organizations under the law. Again, we see a problem with the government defining what is religious and what is not religious. A diocese may be exempt; however, Catholic Charities organizations may not be exempt. In the recent Supreme Court decision on the Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., we see in the very words of the majority opinion the problem clearly stated:
“Under the Health and Human Services (HHS) view, RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) would permit the Government to require all employers to provide coverage for any medical procedure allowed by law in the jurisdiction in question – for instance, third-trimester abortions or assisted suicide. The owners of many closely held corporations could not in good conscience provide such coverage, and thus HHS would effectively exclude these people from full participation in the economic life of the Nation. RFRA was enacted to prevent such an outcome.”
It needs to be said over and over again, pregnancy is not a disease. In a roundabout way, it is about health care for both child and mother. Hardly is it a disease to be avoided. Rather, it is a responsibility to be accepted with great prudence and sacrifice.
Another consideration involves the unitive aspect of the marriage act, which must also be understood as essential to any healthy marriage. In general, using any natural family planning requires abstinence from sexual intercourse at certain days during the woman’s menstrual cycle. For most, this means an average of six to 12 days per menstrual cycle, depending on the fertility signs of the woman, the length of her cycle and the method used. During these times of abstinence, couples can still express their love and affection for one another without engaging in intercourse.
This is part of the challenge of every marriage, since the ability to have sexual intercourse is not without its limitations. Those couples that practice natural family planning come to a much deeper understanding of their sexuality and the great gift of fertility that belongs to most couples. In their responsible use of God’s gift of human sexuality, neither spouse is, therefore, taken for granted, and each grows in mutual understanding of his or her responsibility and respect toward the other and the marital bond that joins them together.
Currently, there are three main methods of natural family planning that differ from the older “rhythm” or “calendar” method. Over the years, advances in scientific experimentation have also made these methods of natural family planning more effective than any contraceptive means, without the ill side effects. The Billings Ovulation Method, the Creighton Model Fertility Care Services and the Sympto-Thermal Method all offer great opportunities for couples to learn to love one another more deeply while controlling their fertility.
The Church has great concern for couples as they struggle at times to raise healthy and balanced families. Natural family planning is truly an effort of putting out into the deep, since it involves a commitment and restraint that goes beyond what is normally considered acceptable in today’s society. As a Diocese, we will continue to assist all married couples that wish to grow in their love for each other and their embrace of responsible Christian parenthood.