Natural Family Planning Awareness Week is a week that highlights the anniversary of Humanae Vitae (July 25) and the feasts of Saints Joachim and Anne (July 26). Dioceses and parishes are encouraged to promote the teaching of the Church on human sexuality and how Natural Family Planning (NFP) can be used by couples to live the unitive and procreative purposes of marriage. It is an opportunity to discuss the scientific and medical developments of modern methods of NFP and fertility awareness, and clarify what the Church means regarding responsible parenthood.
Natural Family Planning (NFP) can be described as “fertility awareness plus discernment”. It is being aware of the naturally occurring signs of fertility and infertility in a woman and using that information as a vital sign of the woman’s health, and also using that information to discern how they will use the gift of their combined “couple fertility” each month. If they are seeking to achieve a pregnancy they have intercourse during the fertile window of the woman’s cycle, and if they are trying to postpone a pregnancy they abstain on days of possible fertility. There are several different methods to choose from and couples are encouraged to find the method that works best for their particular situation.
In the document Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan the bishops remind us that “Marriage has two fundamental ends or purposes towards which it is oriented, namely, the good of the spouses as well as the procreation of children. Thus the Church teaches that marriage is both unitive and procreative, and that it is inseparably both.” One of the reasons the Church promotes the use of NFP is that it allows married couples to put this into practice. Where contraception rejects the possibility of life and focuses only on the unitive aspect of sex, NFP is always open to union and procreation.
It is not uncommon when people hear that the Church does not permit birth control that they automatically assume that we are asking every Catholic couple to fill a 15 passenger van with children. Thankfully the opposite of contraception is not a directive to have as many children as physically possible. Instead, the Church promotes something called “Responsible Parenthood”.
This ultimately means that couples recognize that their combined fertility is a gift, and they are called to use it with proper discernment. It means they take into consideration the circumstances of their family (such as physical, economic, psychological and social conditions) and, with well formed consciences and a spirit of generosity, discern where God is leading them. Where contraception says “life is not welcome here”, NFP and the practice of responsible parenthood means that a couple is always open to the gift of children, even during the infertile time.
The Church recognizes that every couple’s circumstances are unique. There is no such thing as the “perfect number” of children, and we reject the idea that large families are holier than smaller families. Where some couples may be able to have a large number of children, other families, due to their particular circumstances, may need to postpone or even avoid pregnancy for a temporary or indefinite amount of time. So how do they make this decision responsibly?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church 2368 states that it is the duty of the spouses “to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness” and that “they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality”. This means that if a couple discerns that what is best for their family right now is to postpone pregnancy, then abstinence during the times when pregnancy is possible is what is required. This ensures that the objective nature of sex (which is ordered towards procreation) is not disrupted, and it respects the full truth of what we believe the marital embrace to be. Periodic abstinence requires sacrifice, yet it is ultimately a way for a couple to grow in virtue and fidelity to one another and their marriage vows. We can also say that responsible parenthood is practiced by couples even when they are trying to achieve pregnancy. They are still required to respect the unitive and procreative aspects of sex, which means we cannot use something like Invitrofertilitization even though the gift of children is a good thing to pursue. As Catholics, we must always keep in mind the truth of what marriage and sexuality mean.
If Natural Family Planning is correctly understood as “fertility awareness plus discernment” what we are really saying is that NFP is an opportunity to live the truth of the sacrament of marriage. We can see in its fullness, the genius of God’s design. As we promote NFP methods we affirm that fertility is not a disease but a tremendous gift and responsibility. The capacity to co-create with God is incredible, and it requires a sense of “awe” at what we are opening ourselves to in the marital act, namely the possibility of life. So how do we support couples in how they discern how to use this gift responsibly?
Over the past decade, there has been a significant development in the availability of fertility awareness resources. It is easier to find online and live classes in the method and language of your choice, and the science and medical developments around certain methods have affirmed that fertility is a vital sign of health. FemTech (which refers to software, products and services, and diagnostics that use technology to improve women’s health) is a growing industry that continues to provide things like thermometers that are worn on an armband and fertility monitors to track hormone levels throughout a cycle. The education, technology, and ongoing support surrounding fertility awareness has made using these models easier. The fertility awareness side of NFP continues to improve, and as couples seek options for achieving and postponing pregnancy that are in line with our Catholic faith, the science is there to support them.
Even still, NFP and the practice of responsible parenthood is more than learning a method, it also requires discernment; meaning it requires that the couple knows how to pray. As we continue to promote the science and medical benefits of NFP and fertility awareness, it is also a moment to evangelize. In a world that can sometimes feel chaotic and uncertain, couples can feel, to perhaps an even greater degree, that bringing a new life into the world requires a tremendous amount of responsibility. While society says that in order to be “responsible parents” you must have a certain amount of money and resources available to you, or that to be good parents and environmentally conscious you should not have more than a certain number of children. Without the fullness of truth of our faith, responsible parenthood might be considered a financial decision and not one that is rooted in prayer and a relationship with God.
Responsible parenthood requires that the couple make their decision about their individual family circumstances and whether or not they need to postpone or achieve a pregnancy by involving God in the decision making process. NFP ultimately says, “God your will be done in our family” and that is what makes all the difference. Trusting God with our fertility, if we are honest, can be a little scary . When we encourage couples to discern what God is calling them to as a family, we are inviting them to grow in understanding of who God is, the abundance of grace that he offers us through the sacraments, particularly in the sacrament of holy matrimony. When we teach fertility awareness and the practice of responsible parenthood we are proclaiming, not only that fertility is good and children are a gift, but also that God is trustworthy, God is faithful, and he cannot be outdone in generosity. Be not afraid.