By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia
July 25-31 is an important week in the life of the Church since it commemorates Natural Family Planning (NFP) Awareness Week. This week highlights the promotion of NFP and the Church’s teachings on human sexuality, married love and responsible parenthood. These dates correspond with the anniversary of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae (July 25), and the feast of Saints Joachim and Anne (July 26), the parents of the Blessed Mother. NFP Awareness week is commemorated every year by dioceses across the country to remind people of the many resources offered by the Church regarding NFP, and to celebrate the Church’s beautiful teachings expressed by Pope Paul VI in the encyclical Humanae Vitae.
NFP is a safe, effective and morally acceptable method of spacing children. It is a modern method for couples to monitor their fertility signs utilizing charts and scientific knowledge. It can help couples plan their families responsibly in accordance with the truth of how God has made them.
The name “Natural Family Planning” is somewhat of a misnomer because although it is a natural (i.e., not artificial) way of keeping track of fertility, it is not always utilized as a method of family planning. Some choose to use it as a way to be aware of their fertility, for health reasons or to help in conceiving. This fertility awareness can be learned through NFP classes, and by charting the wife’s monthly fertility signs. Fertility awareness/NFP has many benefits, including understanding one’s body better, not harming one’s body with contraceptive chemicals, and speaking a “language of the body” imbued with love and truth, by not putting artificial barriers between spouses.
NFP should not be confused with the “rhythm method.” The rhythm method was used by Catholics for family planning purposes before and during the 1950s. It was a standardized way of counting calendar days to estimate when a woman’s fertility occurred. The difficulty with this is that every woman’s fertility is slightly different and can also vary from month to month, so this method did not work very well.
In the 1950s and 1960s, NFP first began to be developed, and was a much more precise method of pinpointing a woman’s monthly fertility. Because it relies upon a woman’s day-to-day bodily fertility signs (cervical secretions and position and temperature), it is much more specific and inspanidualized to each woman, and therefore much more accurate than the rhythm method.
NFP can enhance the possibility of conceiving a child, or, with discernment and the proper intention, to space the conception of children. A woman experiences clear, observable signs indicating when she is fertile or infertile. The couple learns to observe and understand these signs, and shares responsibility for fertility awareness. Ideally, they also communicate and pray together regularly to discern God’s plan for their family, in keeping with responsible and generous parenthood.
Physiology and charting in NFP
There are numerous methods of Natural Family Planning. Most methods are either a form of the “Ovulation Method” or the “Sympto-Thermal Method.” With the Ovulation Method, the spouses chart the wife’s cervical secretions. In NFP classes, they learn to differentiate between “fertile”- and “nonfertile”-type secretions. With the Sympto-Thermal Method, the spouses chart both the wife’s cervical secretions and her basal body temperature by using a digital thermometer to take her temperature every morning. This temperature data can help them confirm whether she has ovulated or not, because a woman’s temperature rises slightly after ovulation and stays a bit higher until the end of her cycle.
The spouses can utilize all of this information to determine their monthly “fertile window.” This is the time in the wife’s cycle during which she is most likely to conceive, around her time of ovulation. If spouses have marital relations during this fertile time, a child can be conceived. Alternatively, if a couple after prayer and discussion concludes that for a grave reason, God may be calling them to refrain from having children, they utilize the fertility data from their charts to temporarily postpone pregnancy by abstaining during the fertile window.
NFP is ecologically friendly and environmentally responsible. It is a “green method” in that it involves no contraceptive drugs or chemical hormones that can be excreted into the public water system. Discarded and excreted contraceptive drugs have been having harmful effects on the U.S.’s aquatic animals, especially fish. Like secondhand smoke, secondhand estrogens are being released into the environment and are causing harm to wildlife.
In July 2007, the National Catholic Register reported on a study by Environmental Protection Agency-funded scientists at the University of Colorado that found the creation of “intersex fish” with male and female features, due to estrogens and other hormones from birth control pills and patches excreted through urine into the public sewage system and then into streams. NFP uses no such harmful toxins and thus nothing is released into the environment which can hurt the earth or wildlife.
Religious dimensions of NFP: Growth in faith, trust and closeness to the Lord
An especially valuable benefit of NFP is that it can help one grow in one’s faith. This can happen in many ways. The NFP-practicing couple understands firsthand the wonder of fertility-the beauty of the wife’s cycles and that the spouses’ bodies are made for one another, and for procreation, by God.
The NFP couple also perceives the importance of sacrificial love and self-control, since they work in conjunction with the body’s cycles and practice abstinence when necessary out of love for the other person. This sets up a pattern of both self-mastery and self-giving love that overflows into other areas of their lives, which brings them closer to an understanding of God’s sacrificial love for us.
Many couples find that learning NFP helps them to appreciate that fertility and children are gifts from God. By living in accord with respect for their bodies, and by praying during each cycle for God’s will with regard to conceiving a child, they foster a willingness to trust in the Lord’s providence and a respect for the dignity of human life. They place their fertility in God’s hands, and live each day in accord with how God has created them. This brings the couple closer to each other and to God.
NFP also allows the couple to speak a language of truth and love with their bodies. The spouses give themselves to each other totally and without reserve. This “language of the body” of total self-gift is in accord with the desires of the human heart to give oneself to another fully, and to receive another in fullness. It speaks of total commitment, openness to a future together, and complete acceptance of the other.
Reasons spouses choose NFP
In summary, some of the reasons that spouses choose to use NFP are: To follow their personal faith and conscience; because they want their actions to align with what their Church teaches; because they want a natural method, free from chemicals, devices or surgeries; because they view it as a healthier option; and because they want it to help them achieve a pregnancy, or postpone pregnancy, according to God’s plan for their family.
NFP classes are especially helpful for those who are preparing to marry, or couples already married who would like to newly learn NFP or take a refresher course. The Family Life Office of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia offers NFP classes in different parts of the Archdiocese nearly every month.
To learn more about NFP, or to register for an NFP class, call the Family Life Office at 215-587-3516, or visit their NFP webpage at http://archphila.org/evangelization/famlife/natural_fam_plan/planning.htm.
There, one can find a schedule of classes, online registration, downloadable NFP brochures for parish or personal use, links to various NFP method web sites (such as the Creighton Model FertilityCare System) and more.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also has an excellent web page filled with resources that pastors can utilize to advertise NFP Awareness Week to parishioners. Posters, articles, homily aids, articles and couples’ stories about NFP can be found at this web site: http://www.usccb.org/prolife/issues/nfp/nfpweek/index.shtml.
I encourage you, dear readers, to learn more about NFP through these important resources, and to support the Church’s mission to evangelize marriage and family.
July 22, 2010