While debates over contraception dominate national headlines, promoters of natural family planning aim to impart the depth of Church teaching on human sexuality to younger generations.
“God gave us reason” along with the gift of sexuality, said professor Janet Smith, who teaches moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Michigan.
Smith told CNA on April 18 that natural family planning (NFP) is not an obligation to “live without planning,” but a call to use reason while respecting the nature of human sexuality.
Supported by the Catholic Church, NFP is a method of spacing children by practicing periodic abstinence based on physical indicators of a woman’s fertility.
In an essay titled “The Moral Use of Natural Family Planning,” Smith explained that although the Church teaches that “bringing forth new life is a great good,” this does not mean that all married couples have an “obligation to have as many children as they could possibly care for.”
Despite the cultural assumption that Catholics are required to ceaselessly procreate, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth) clarified that there are “serious reasons” for which a couple may seek to avoid conception “for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.”
The spectrum of these reasons “is broader and perhaps more liberal than many think,” said Smith.
She noted that the Church calls married couples to use prudence in examining their physical, psychological and financial conditions, as well as other factors, when looking at the future of their families.
Couples should not be selfish in their decision, and they are called to look “beyond their own comfort and convenience,” but they can morally use NFP to prevent conception for a variety of reasons beyond mere health concerns, she said.
At the same time, it is important to explain that NFP is not simply the Catholic version of contraception, said Catholic convert, writer and NCRegister.com blogger Jennifer Fulwiler.
Rather, NFP is based on a “fundamentally different understanding of what human sexuality is.”
A mother of five, Fulwiler explained that even though each sexual act may not be aimed specifically at creating a new life, NFP always acknowledges that the human sexual act and the creation of new life are intricately connected — a concept she says has been abandoned by today’s culture.
Fulwiler acknowledged that the practice “definitely has a poor image,” and, while this is partly due to the way in which some NFP classes are taught, it is also largely caused by “cultural misconceptions.”
The secular world looks at couples practicing NFP who have large families and assumes that the method does not work to prevent pregnancy, an assumption that Fulwiler describes as “a mountain of misunderstanding.”
When you embrace the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and life, you tend to be open to more kids, she explained, adding that this is not failure on the part of NFP.
Presenting NFP can be challenging, Fulwiler admitted, because it is “very difficult to sum up the fullness of Church teaching” in a brochure.
She believes that one effective way to initiate a “dialogue with the culture” is to engage those who have had a negative experience with contraception. Once people have established that artificial birth control is not the perfect solution, they are more willing to hear a new view of sexuality, she observed.
“I think there is a big interest in women really listening to their bodies,” Fulwiler said. After years of being told to “take a pill and shut up,” women are eager for an approach that looks “at the whole woman.”
Emily Stimpson, author of The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years, added that in promoting NFP to a secular world, Catholics should not shy away from presenting the level of self-discipline that is required.
We need to be “as clear as we can up front” in order to “set people up for success,” she explained. People need to “realize that it is possible but will take work.”
Stimpson said that arguments against NFP based on the sacrifices it requires are “dangerous” and reveal that the problems with contraception are part of a “much larger issue.”
As a culture, we should “be careful where we set the bar for ourselves,” she warned.
If we don’t cultivate these virtues in our sex lives, we won’t have them in other areas either, she explained. But if we do build these virtues, we will be able to make use of them in all areas of our lives.
In a world that is “filled with temptation,” self-discipline is crucial, and a failure to develop it can lead people into disaster, both in their marriages and in other areas of their lives, she said.
The Church is not asking the impossible, stressed Stimpson, adding that she knows many people who are living out the Church’s teaching on sexuality.
“It is possible,” she said. “It’s just difficult.”
Developing the virtues needed for NFP is a process that should begin long before marriage, said Stimpson. Practicing the “basics of Christian holiness” can help single people achieve success with NFP after they are married.
However, people also “like practical steps,” she added, suggesting the promotion of specific practices such as fasting that the Church has given us to build basic virtue and self-disciple.
Stimpson believes that the next generation is “very willing” to respond to the message of NFP. She explained that in addition to an aversion to chemicals and affinity for things that are radical and countercultural, young people have seen the results of a contraceptive mentality in their parents’ generation and are longing for something better.
At the same time, she cautioned, younger generations are not always prepared to make sacrifices or take a more difficult path.
Still, she said, when presented with the complete and honest message of NFP, young people are often “open to learning that there’s a new way.”