July 19, 2019

Natural Family Planning helps married couples ‘love naturally’

Engaged couples learn about Natural Family Planning in a presentation given at a One in Christ marriage preparation session at St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis on April 13, 2013. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Engaged couples learn about Natural Family Planning in a presentation given at a One in Christ marriage preparation session at St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis on April 13, 2013. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

As Msgr. Paul Koetter prepared a couple for marriage several years ago, he encountered some resistance from the groom when discussing Natural Family Planning (NFP) classes.

The parish where he was pastor at the time required engaged couples to learn NFP, “so I gave them a list of local NFP teaching couples to choose from,” recalls Msgr. Koetter, now pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis.

“The guy looked down at the list, looked up and said, ‘No. No way. That’s just way too awkward.’

“It turns out he wasn’t talking about NFP,” says Msgr. Koetter. “His problem was that the first couple on the list was his brother and sister-in-law!”

While humorous, the story also touches on the importance of the Church’s role in helping couples “love naturally” by “cooperating with God’s design for married love,” as stated on the Natural Family Planning page of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) website.

But what is Natural Family Planning, really? How reliable is it? Isn’t it really just contraception? And if NFP is a way for married couples to embrace “God’s design for married love,” how is the archdiocese promoting it to those preparing for marriage?

Myth versus reality

“Scientific, natural and moral methods of family planning that can help married couples either achieve or postpone pregnancies.” So reads the definition of NFP on the USCCB’s website. “Since the methods of NFP respect the love-giving [unitive] and life-giving [procreative] nature of the conjugal act, they support God’s design for married love.”

The site explains those methods as being “based on the observation of the naturally occurring signs and symptoms of the fertile and infertile phases of a woman’s menstrual cycle.”

Misconceptions and misinformation swirl around these methods. The USCCB site identifies some of those concerns and tackles them myth-buster style. Below is a sampling of “myths and realities” listed on the site:

  • “NFP is based on guesswork; it’s what people used before modern science developed contraception.” Myth! The methods are based on more than a century of scientific research on women’s fertility cycles.
  • “NFP is too complicated to be used by most people.” Myth! The methods are not difficult to learn, reads the “reality” answer on the website. And there are several ways to learn, including onsite and online classes, from NFP teaching couples, from practitioners and more. The site notes that while NFP is not hard to learn, it “will take effort. NFP couples say that it is worth the effort because many benefits will be gained, including stronger communication, mutual responsibility and greater respect for each other.”
  • “NFP is not a reliable method of family planning.” Myth! When practiced correctly and consistently, the site notes, “studies show that couples … achieve effectiveness rates of 97-99 percent” in postponing pregnancy. And the method also optimizes the potential for pregnancy by helping married couples detect the most fertile time of the woman’s cycle.

‘A gift, not a problem to be solved’

One myth particularly bears need for busting: “There is no difference between NFP and contraception.” Reality shows this misconception wrong on many levels.

First, Natural Family Planning has no potentially harmful side effects as do many forms of contraception, such as “the pill,” inter-uterine devices, hormones and others—nor does it incur the cost of such forms of contraception.

And for those concerned about the environment, family planning just doesn’t get any more “green” than when done naturally.

More importantly, NFP offers benefits that simply aren’t possible when using contraception, the site explains.

Such benefits include the ability to cooperate with rather than suppress a couple’s fertility; mutual responsibility of both the man and the woman; the call for a couple to communicate monthly about their readiness—emotionally, physically, spiritually and financially—to have a child; respect for and acceptance of a spouse’s whole—including their fertility; the value of potential children; and the virtue of chastity.

And only NFP can “honor and safeguard the unitive and procreative meanings of married love,” notes the USCCB site.

“NFP, as opposed to contraception, does not deliberately frustrate the procreative potential” of the marital embrace, it explains. “[It] is unique because it enables [couples] to work with the body rather than against it. Fertility is viewed as a gift and reality to live, not a problem to be solved.”

Finally—but far from least in importance—the site states this fact: “[NFP] is morally acceptable, while contraception is actually sinful and never morally right.”

‘The baseline of what parishes should provide’

When telling the story of the groom who did not want to learn NFP from his brother and sister-in-law, Msgr. Koetter noted that his parish at the time required engaged couples to take Natural Family Planning classes.

Today, says Gabriela Ross, coordinator of the archdiocesan Office of Marriage and Family Life, “The archdiocese’s marriage preparation guidelines state that marriage preparation must provide a ‘Catholic understanding of sexuality—that marriage is life-giving, unitive and procreative.’

“To accomplish that, couples must either complete a course on the Theology of the Body or on NFP.”

Those courses are made available through three different marriage preparation options offered by the archdiocese: the one- to one-and-a-half day Pre-Cana retreat, the two-day Tobit weekend and the three-day One in Christ program.

“Our office hosts the Pre-Cana retreats,” says Ross. “They’re grounded in the Theology of the Body.

“We also address NFP at every retreat by having a couple share their witness about using NFP in their marriage. They give the basic facts of the NFP method they practice, and they refer couples to our online resource list of NFP providers and learning options.”

At Tobit weekends, presenting couples have the option to share about their experience with and method of Natural Family Planning. Couples are also given a handout with information from the archdiocesan website on methods of NFP and where to learn them.

The One in Christ program takes NFP a step further, explains Ross.

“They do an excellent job sharing a witness of NFP by a practicing couple, and also bring in a panel of medical professionals to discuss NFP at length and give couples the option to write down anonymous questions for the panel to answer in front of the group, or to meet with a panel member privately.”

Overall, the archdiocesan guidelines “are the baseline of what every parish should be providing,” says Ross. “But some parishes have an even richer preparation program, which is great.”

The Church’s teaching of NFP as God’s design for married love traces back to the first couple in the Bible, Ross explains.

“God gave [Adam and Eve] the responsibility of co-creating life with him,” she says. “NFP is the practical method for doing just that—it honors God’s role in marriage and family.”

(The archdiocese’s NFP resource list can be found at www.archindy.org/marriageandfamily/ministries-NFP.html. Information about NFP in general can be found on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ site at bit.ly/2M3zXsR.)

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