While condemning the use of contraception, the Church also recognizes that some couples face serious situations in their marriage and family which move them to postpone a pregnancy, even indefinitely.
To assist couples, the Church implores couples to turn to a natural method of regulating births, which God Himself has designed as part of the reproductive system. This method is simply called Natural Family Planning.
Actually one of the earliest forms of natural family planning is breast feeding. If a woman breast feeds her baby consistently, she probably would not conceive for 18-24 months. Actually, many tribal people naturally regulate births this way.
In the 1930s, Calendar Rhythm was developed. This method was effective if the woman had regular cycles and if she was properly instructed. Actually, rhythm is about as effective as condoms or other barrier methods of birth control. Nevertheless, Calendar Rhythm was unreliable for many couples. Perhaps this unreliability is why many joked, “What do you call a couple who uses rhythm? Answer: Parents.”
However, modern Natural Family Planning is technically called the Sympto-Thermal Method. This method relies on three signs of fertility in the woman: basal temperature pattern, cervical mucus pattern, and physical changes in the position of the cervix. These three signs inform a couple when the wife is in ovulation and possibly could conceive a child if the couple engages in marital love. Ironically, while many doctors prescribe artificial means to prevent a pregnancy, they prescribe the techniques of Natural Family Planning to help a couple who is having trouble conceiving a child identify the period of ovulation and thereby know when the possibility of conception is the greatest. Moreover, if one is worried about effectiveness, the Sympto-Thermal Method is proven to be as effective as the Pill and more effective than barrier methods if used properly.
Immediately, some people may honestly ask, “What is the difference between Natural Family Planning and other forms of contraception? Both seem to do the same thing.” While both means may have the same intent — postponing pregnancy — the difference lies in the means themselves. With Natural Family Planning, couples keep their covenant of life and love intact. They use only the means given to them by God, which are intrinsic to whom they are. In expressing their marital love, they are mindful that this action not only unites them as husband and wife, but also may participate in God's creative love. Rather than suppress and ignore one dimension, they respect both dimensions.
Therefore, if they decide for a serious reason to postpone a pregnancy, then both husband and wife make the decision and both share in the sacrifice of not expressing their marital love during the period of ovulation. Natural Family Planning is also safe, and the burden is shared by both husband and wife. Moreover, the couple is open to the providence of God's will: if a child should come who “was not planned,” so be it — that is God's will and God's gift; whereas with contraceptives, where the couple has everything nicely planned and is in control, the surprise pregnancy oftentimes spells disaster. Remember that one of the arguments for legalized abortion is to correct “unplanned pregnancies.”
Pope John Paul II addressed the anthropological and moral differences between contraception and Natural Family Planning in Familiaris Consortio: “The choice of the natural rhythms involves accepting the cycle of the person, that is the woman, and thereby accepting dialogue, reciprocal respect, shared responsibility and self-control. To accept the cycle and to enter into dialogue means to recognize both the spiritual and corporal character of conjugal communion, and to live personal love with its requirement of fidelity. In this context the couple comes to experience how conjugal communion is enriched with those values of tenderness and affection which constitute the inner soul of human sexuality, in its physical dimension also. In this way sexuality is respected and promoted in its truly and fully human dimension, and is never 'used' as an 'object' that, by breaking the personal unity of soul and body, strikes at God's creation itself at the level of the deepest interaction of nature and person” (#32).
Actually, Natural Family Planning has had great successes. For example, in 1960, the government of Mauritius, a small island country in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar, wanted to commence a major contraceptive campaign to control the population. The bishop published a pastoral letter denouncing these plans. After discussing the issue with government officials, in 1963, an education program was started for Natural Family Planning. Doctors educated training couples who in turn taught the method to other couples. Today they train 2,000 couples each year. Each parish has a special program for educating couples in preparation for marriage, and 85percent of couples married in the Church complete that training. In all, 20 percent of women of child-bearing age use Natural Family Planning, of whom Hindus and Moslems account for 62 percent. Moreover, artificial methods are on the decline. The effectiveness of Natural Family Planning has been a convincing argument against legalizing abortion in the country. What Bishop Margeot fears today is the coalition of governments — America, Japan, and Northern Europe — and foundations — Rockefeller and Packard — who are striving to impose artificial birth control throughout Africa, which in each case has eventually led to abortion.
While this column cannot give a full explanation of Natural Family Planning, any couple who is interested or has questions concerning the Church’s teaching ought to take the course. Couples preparing for marriage are especially encouraged to do so. Rather than just brush aside the Church's teaching, investigate the teaching and inquire about Natural Family Planning. Ask the couples what the difference between the two methods actually is. Courses for Natural Family Planning are offered throughout the Diocese of Arlington.
Oftentimes, people think that Natural Family Planning is ineffective. If used properly, Natural Family Planning is almost 100 percent effective with a .004 pregnancy rate (U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (1978)) versus “the pill,” which is 97 percent effective, or the condom, which is 79-88 percent effective (Contraceptive Technology).
Nevertheless, this whole issue concerns that covenant love between husband and wife, and God. It deals with the creation of life in union with God. While some individuals like to cite statistics for effectiveness, no method is 100 percent effective; however, with Natural Family Planning the couple has a trust in God’s will and providence that is absent from other means. Couples who use Natural Family Planning do not speak of “unplanned pregnancies,” because they know that the act of conjugal love may bring about life. Also, while the divorce rate in the United States hovers around 50 percent during the first five years of marriage, those who use Natural Family Planning have a divorce rate of about 0.6 percent according to the Couple to Couple League, and 2-5 percent according to research conducted by California State University, attesting to the strong covenant love shared by these couples.
Therefore, concerning the regulation of births, Vatican II stated, “It is the married couple themselves who must in the last analysis arrive at these judgments before God” (Gaudium et Spes, #50). However, any faithful Catholic must first take into account the teaching of the Magisterium. As has been emphasized, marriage is serious, marital love is serious, the creation of life is serious. The means of contraception are intrinsically evil (Catechism, #2370). Thereby the violation of marital love through the use of contraceptive practices is objectively a serious, mortal sin. Granted, grave circumstances may exist which in turn may reduce the culpability of a couple in this matter. If a couple is struggling with this issue, I advise them to see a priest or talk with one of the couples who teaches Natural Family Planning. Oftentimes, the teaching couple has used the artificial means and can best explain to another couple the differences between the methods and guide them through this issue.
Nevertheless, no one cannot cavalierly dismiss the consistent teaching of the Church on this issue. We cannot simply consider good intentions or motives. Moreover, we cannot just go to the “Yellow Pages” to find the priest or theologian who will give us the answer we want to hear. We have to be honest and wrestle with the truth and by the grace of God conform to it. As Pope John Paul II asserted, “As Teacher, [the Church] never tires of proclaiming the moral norm that must guide the responsible transmission of life. The Church is in no way the author or the arbiter of this norm. In obedience to the truth which is Christ, whose image is reflected in the nature and dignity of the human person, the Church interprets the moral norm and proposes it to all people of good will, without concealing its demands of radicalness and perfection” (Familiaris Consortio, #33).
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria.
(If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806). This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)