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Helping Couples Live ‘Humanae Vitae’

Exploring the positives and effectiveness of natural methods of family planning

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Humanae Vitae was one of the most controversial encyclicals ever promulgated in the Church. In it, Pope St. Paul VI proclaimed using artificial birth control to be immoral. Natural methods were declared licit for a serious motive.

Natural family planning has been called the best-kept secret in the Catholic Church. The method effectiveness of NFP — that is, if used correctly — is about 99%, or even higher. In a 2006 study done by a team at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, in which 900 women were tracked using the sympto-thermal method (STM), avoiding sex during fertile periods, the failure rate was 0.4%.

The World Health Organization performed a study involving 869 fertile women from Australia, India, Ireland, the Philippines and El Salvador. They found that 93% were able to correctly interpret their body’s fertility signs regardless of educational levels or culture.

A relatively new method of NFP is the Marquette Method, which measures urine using the ClearBlue Easy fertility monitor and cycle history to determine fertility. The monitor measures estrogen and luteinizing hormones. This method works during postpartum, breastfeeding and perimenopause and involves shorter abstinence times than other NFP methods. It takes just a few minutes a day for the first two weeks (or so) of each menstrual cycle. This method is said to be 98.4% method effective (perfect use) and 98% effective for typical use for avoiding pregnancy in women with normal menstrual cycles.

Of course, natural family planning requires abstinence during a woman’s fertile time, which is also the peak time for libido in both husband and wife. This is because nature is pro-fertility, pro-children.

The divorce rate for churchgoing NFP users have shown to be about half that of those who used contraceptive methods. This is most likely due to the need for more communication by the couple using NFP.

Plus, many couples say that abstinence keeps their love fresh, forcing them to concentrate on the other types of love — namely, agape (benevolent love), friendship and affection. One husband stated it was like having a courtship and honeymoon each month. Moreover, it prevents the mindset in the husband that the wife is always available for marital relations. And, of course, it is the only “green” method of birth control.

Witness of Husbands

It has been alleged that women are more open to using NFP than men. Here are some comments by men NFP users:

• “Taking our NFP class strengthened my conviction that the manly thing to do was to protect my wife from the harm contraception could cause. And, the couples who taught the class exuded joy.”

• “The benefits of NFP extend beyond family planning. I found NFP gave me a deeper respect for my wife and the gift of her fertility. Being aware of her fertility has helped me to pursue other registers of love suited to her tempo. It lends an element of bittersweet waiting. It’s not always easy, but it’s a sacrifice for the beloved.”

• “When we try living Church teachings faithfully, we discover how, in actuality, those teachings offer us an authentic guide to ‘the good life’ [which is also the happy life]; to live the way God intended us to live. … How do you know the Church teaches ‘the good life’? Perhaps only by experience, after giving it a chance … which means to simply commit, trust in the wisdom of the Church, and see where the fullness of family life takes us. It has made me and my wife very happy.”

The Blessing of Children

There is something far better than NFP: Having children. Sacred Scripture proclaims: “Certainly sons are a gift from the LORD, / the fruit of the womb, a reward. … / Blessed is the man who has filled his quiver with them. / He will never be shamed.” (Ps 127:3-5)

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The Church proclaims similar sentiments: “By their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 48). Also, “Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents” (No. 50).

Among the couples who fulfill their God-given task [of procreating], those merit special mention who with a gallant heart and with wise and common deliberation undertake to bring up suitably even a relatively large family.

Paul VI taught: “With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons (seriis causis) and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time” (Humanae Vitae, No. 10).

Upon entering the topic of “Benefits of Large Families” on the internet, I was surprised to see a good number of articles on the subject, including one from The New York Times. Some of their points:

• Children learn how to share.
•  They learn how to get along with others (better social skills).
•  They learn gratitude (without having a lot).
• They entertain one another.
• They learn to pitch in for the family.
• They are never lonely (nor are their parents).

We should mention parenthetically that the United States is in no danger of becoming overpopulated. The country fell below the replacement level of 2.1 children per fertile couple in 2008 and has continued to fall to 1.7 children in 2022.

Contraception: A Serious Sin?

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Is contraception a serious sin? The matter of mortal sin? In his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii (“On Christian Marriage”), Pope Pius XI taught that contraception was a “grave sin” (No. 56).

In the 1975 Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, Persona Humana, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith taught the following: “Now according to Christian tradition and the Church’s teaching, and as right reason also recognizes, the moral order of sexuality involves such high values of human life that every direct violation of this order is objectively serious” (Section 10).

The footnote attached to this includes references Humanae Vitae, 13-14, in which Pope Paul VI proclaims the immorality of “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means” (No. 14.).

It should be clear from all this that contraception is a serious sin, a mortal sin if done with full consent of the will and sufficient reflection.

What if a person does not accept the Church’s teaching on contraception? Pope John Paul II had an answer for this: “It is sometimes reported that a large number of Catholics today do not adhere to the teachings of the Church on a number of questions, notably sexual and conjugal morality, divorce and remarriage. … It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the Magisterium is totally compatible with being a good Catholic and poses no obstacle to the reception of the sacraments. This is a grave error” (Address to American bishops at San Fernando Mission in Los Angeles, Sept. 16, 1987).

What if your spouse insists on contraception knowing that you embrace the Church’s teaching that it is seriously sinful? May you have sex with him/her? Yes, under certain conditions:

• When your action is not illicit — that is, you are not the contraceptor.

• When proportionately grave reasons exist for having sex with your partner (the importance of the sex act for your marital harmony would suffice).

• As long as you are seeking to help your spouse to cease contracepting (with patience, prayer, charity and dialogue; though not necessarily at the moment of conjugal intimacy).

The non-contracepting spouse should be highly motivated to help his/her spouse to move to NFP, above all for the salvation of his/her immortal soul. This, of course, should be the main concern for every married person and should be pursued diplomatically and with kindness.

A first step for a reluctant spouse might be to hear some podcasts on the Theology of the Body. This is the profound theology on chastity developed by Pope John Paul II. It has converted thousands of people to embrace biblical and Church teaching on marriage and family.

The next step toward the conversion of the spouse would be for the couple to take a class in natural family planning, with follow-up personal interaction with a teaching couple. (This can be done online. For free classes go to ccnfp.org/.)

It’s not just the learning of an NFP technique that is important. More significant is the discovery of the philosophy behind NFP that is most often included in the instruction.

If a person or a couple converts to embrace the Church’s teaching on birth control, there is the issue of the Catholic party/parties receiving the Sacrament of Penance. It seems that a large number of Catholics have never heard the Church’s teaching on this subject and so might claim invincible ignorance, prior to learning it. Nonetheless, it should be confessed.

If either spouse chose (pre-conversion) sterilization, this poses a different sort of issue. To be forgiven, a spouse would have to sincerely repent of having taken this step. Reversal is not required, but there should be genuine regret over having had the procedure in order to worthily receive absolution for it.

Positive Aspects

It seems that contraception has a powerful negative spiritual effect on those who use it, not to mention all the medical drawbacks it entails. Natural family planning, on the other hand, is a wonderfully “green” way of controlling family size, one that avoids all the negatives of contraception. It may involve a similar intention, but is an entirely different, profoundly formative act.

Is this an easily understood difference? No, it is subtle and requires thoughtful reflection to grasp. But it is true, and understanding this is a key to marital happiness.

Although NFP is a wonderful blessing for marriage, it is not the best thing. The best thing for marriage is children, conceived in love and raised in the way of the Lord.

FATHER T.G. (THOMAS) MORROW is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and has authored several books.

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Preaching the NFP Message

A Preachable Message, The Dynamics of Preaching Natural Family Planning” (The Billings Ovulation Method Association, $14.95) is a resource for priests to assist in mentioning natural family planning in their homilies.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, writes in the Foreword: “​​This book … is written by clergy, for clergy, to use for the good of marriages, families, and our promiscuous culture. A small band of faithful Catholics are on the front lines doing their best to promote and defend NFP, and every priest or deacon who preaches about the gift of NFP joins in solidarity with these faithful Catholic witnesses.”

The first part of the book contains interviews with priests who have preached on NFP and addresses some of the fears priests may have about speaking on the topic. The book also offers sample homilies and sample prayers of the faithful.

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