Natural Family Planning Still Missing From Marriage Prep

BUCKEYE, Ariz.—When engaged couples come to St. Henry Church to be married, Father Charles Goraieb makes sure they hear more than a passing mention of natural family planning.

St. Henry's is one of a small but growing number of parishes—along with two dioceses—that have couples take a full course in natural family planning as part of their marriage preparation.

A course consists of two to four classes in which couples learn the moral reasons for the natural method of birth regulation, discover its physical and emotional benefits for marriage and get actual practice monitoring and charting the woman's fertility signs.

So far, Father Goraieb said, nobody has stomped out of his office, complained to the bishop or snuck off to another parish to be married. Even individuals who were initially reluctant to take the classes told him they were glad they did.

“I've never had a couple tell me that they weren't impressed and weren't somehow very moved by this,” he said. “What they tell me is, ‘We learned a lot; this was very helpful; we're very excited about this; it's going to be challenging, but we're going to give it a try; we had no idea that this existed.’”

Marriage preparation would seem the ideal opportunity for instructing Catholic couples in natural family planning, which is lauded by Pope John Paul II and heartily endorsed by the U.S. bishops.

In fact, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offers to pastors and family life offices a 164-page marriage preparation handbook, Faithful to Each Other Forever, which states: “We urge that pre-marriage programs require a full course of instruction in natural family planning as a necessary component in the couple's effective realization of what they need and have a right to know in order to live in accord with the clear teaching of the Church.”

The Church allows married couples to use natural family planning to delay conception if there is a serious reason to do so. Couples have also found the method useful in achieving pregnancy by discerning when the woman is ovulating.

But 79% of diocesan marriage-preparation programs include less than an hour of introduction to natural family planning, according to the most recent survey by the bishops' conference's diocesan development program for natural family planning, conducted in 2002.

Often the presentation is much less than an hour and can even be discouraging and inaccurate, said Patrick Homan, western field director for the Cincinnati-based Couple to Couple League, which teaches the sympto-thermal method of natural family planning.

“It's more like a wink and a nod and, 'Oh, and by the way, the Church advocates this thing called natural family planning, but of course, we call people who use this method ‘parents,’” he said. With such an introduction, few couples follow up to take the course on their own, he said.

The number of engaged and married individuals who received a full course on natural family planning in 2002 was 11,052—a fraction of the number of Catholics who married that year in the United States. That year nearly twice that many individuals were married in the Church in just the state of Pennsylvania.

Hope for NFP

Still, there are signs of hope for more education, according to diocesan family life directors and natural family planning promoters nationwide.

In 50 to 60 dioceses, including St. Paul-Minneapolis; Springfield, Ill.; Harrisburg, Pa.; and Baton Rouge, La., engaged couples attend a separate, in-depth natural family planning presentation of at least one hour and as long as two and a half hours, said Theresa Notare, assistant director of the natural family planning office of the bishops' conference.

Several of these dioceses, such as Phoenix, where Father Goraieb is a pastor, allow individual parishes to include a full course as a regular part of their marriage preparation. Arlington, Va., strongly recommends couples take a course. And now Laredo, Texas, and Denver have made a full course a normative part of their marriage-prep program in all parishes.

In Laredo, a much smaller and younger diocese, some 20 to 30 couples a month attend one of the two required natural family planning classes, said Maria de Lourdes Sanchez, a nurse who oversees instruction for the diocese.

Some couples, faced with the prospect of examining their relationship apart from sexual expression, end up discovering they are not really called to be married to each other, Sanchez said.

“Some respond well and are using it,” she said. “We also have couples that, no matter what you do, no matter how much you show them, they're not going to switch. You pray for them.”

Steve Weidenkopf, director of marriage and family life for the Archdiocese of Denver, said that when Archbishop Charles Chaput implemented the policy in December 2000, the archdiocese had only 10 couples trained to teach natural family planning and about 2,000 couples marrying each year.

Today, he said, the archdiocese has nearly 40 teaching couples and is well on its way to getting every engaged couple through the classes.

Ellen Rossini is based in Richardson, Texas.

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