FARGO, N.D. — When Leslie Robison was getting married, she found out that the Diocese of Fargo required not only marriage preparation classes but instruction in natural family planning.

“There were so many requirements, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is another thing,’” she recalled. “But once I heard the statistics on the divorce rate, I wanted to be part of (natural family planning). I understand Church teaching a lot better. I think it’s a good thing.”

Her husband, Marc, became a Catholic before they married last August.

“I didn’t realize what this was at first, being Protestant, and I didn’t want to take it at all,” he said. “But it was very good for me. We’re going to use this to try to conceive, and this will help our chances.”

Since the Archdiocese of Denver began requiring NFP instruction for engaged couples in 2001, several dioceses have followed suit, and others are in the process. Fargo is one of them.

While opinions are mixed on whether the requirement is a good thing, those involved in marriage preparation do agree that the more they can educate couples about Church teaching on marriage the better. Dioceses not only face an uphill battle against culturally accepted norms, but couples typically don’t know a lot about their faith.

Marriage prep is a place to start.

When the Denver archdiocese conducted a study of couples preparing for marriage in the diocese in 1999, it found that 66% of them were cohabitating, and 91% of them were sexually active. “It’s safe to say that many couples get married in the Church because it’s a pretty place to have a wedding, but they don’t understand what marriage is,” said Jennifer Anselmi, a Couple-to-Couple League NFP instructor in Denver. “The more information they can get up front, the more receptive to the grace of the sacrament they will be.”

Archbishop Charles Chaput’s policy has not always been popular among engaged Catholic couples. But Anselmi’s husband, David, believes that even if couples don’t care about natural family planning, they at least get the information and may use it down the road.

The Anselmis run into a lot of the couples later, and those couples tell them they’re excited about their marriages. Some go on to be NFP teachers. Furthermore, since the archdiocese began offering a course on marriage, which includes elements of Theology of the Body, couples are more open and enthused about the NFP class.

Invitational Approach

Natural family planning is the practice of avoiding or achieving pregnancy according to self-observation of the fertility signs in a woman’s cycle. The Church teaches that the unitive and procreative aspects of the conjugal act must be respected and preserved, and NFP conforms with objective criteria of morality. It is possible, of course, to use the method with the immoral intention of avoiding conception without a serious reason.

In contrast, every action which renders procreation impossible — namely contraception — “is intrinsically evil,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and also contradicts the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife (No. 2370).

In addition to Fargo and Denver, Amarillo, Texas, and Colorado Springs, Colo., now have an NFP requirement, and the dioceses of Lexington, Ky.; Cheyenne, Wyo., and Phoenix, Ariz., are in the process of implementing one.

The Diocese of LaCrosse, Wis., has decided not to require NFP classes, but local pastors can require it in their own parishes. The diocese does require that couples are fully informed on Church teachings on married love, including a presentation on Theology of the Body and the natural methods, and that they fully understand what they are engaging in and what the marriage covenant is, said Alice Heinzen, NFP Coordinator for LaCrosse.

“We’re finding that many couples after hearing the teaching choose to be open to life, and after marriage generously accept children,” said Heinzen. “An invitational approach rather than a mandated approach is getting more people to request NFP classes on their own.”

In fact, 45% of those who attend the LaCrosse marriage prep choose to take a class on natural family planning within 18 months. In contrast, many couples who are required to attend NFP classes by their pastors are “dissenting and defensive” and don’t understand why they’re required to be there, said Heinzen. “We know that fewer couples are asking to be married. A study that came out last week said that 51% of all households do not have a married couple in them,” he said, referring to recent U.S. Census data. “When you look at those statistics, it means we have to shore up a few of our teachings in a better manner.”

The Phoenix diocese found no complaints among couples who were required to take NFP instruction through their parishes. In fact, many of them reported that they were contracepting when they started the course but decided to discontinue and start natural family planning after the course, said Peggy Frei, director of the Phoenix NFP Center, which serves the diocese’s Family Life Office.

“It certainly made me a believer. I think as they are exposed to this, it calls them to a huge lifestyle change,” Frei said. “We’ve come to the conclusion that to require them to take an introduction but not require they take the whole series and learn the practice of NFP is giving them a double message — you need to hear this but you don’t have to use it. In order for them to make an informed, conscious decision, they need to know something about the method.”

Barb Ernster is based

in Fridley, Minnesota.