* Note, this is from a talk I gave last year on Natural Family Planning.
I became Catholic 21 years ago. Converted from being an Episcopalian. At that time, no one was talking about a war on a woman’s right to use birth control, and when I heard about the Catholic prohibition on birth control, I assumed that Catholic women followed the Church’s teaching. When I began RCIA I was pregnant with my first child. I asked the RCIA director at the time if I needed to stop using contraception after I delivered, and she said ”Don’t worry about that right now, after you come into the church you can use your conscience to decide what’s right for you.” Still unclear about what the Church taught about contraception and seeking the truth, I asked her again if once I had the baby If I should not use contraception and she said “you can decide that yourself, the Church leaves it up to you.”
That vague answer was both right and wrong. Technically it’s correct, b/c the woman should make her own decision. But that decision should be based on a well formed conscience. And a well formed Catholic conscience knows that contraception works against God’s plan for marriage.
I still felt unsettled about her answer and began exploring what the Church taught about birth control and natural family planning. A year later when I sponsored a young woman coming into the church, the new RCIA director explained the Church’s true teaching about contraception. I raised my hand and asked if that meant that if we knew the truth and were still using contraception if we were in mortal sin. She said “see me after class.”
I tried to start teaching myself NFP and was in fact having some issues with my cycle. I went to my ob/gyn and she said, go back on the pill. Having none of that, I searched for someone who could teach me how to practice NFP and I found Dr Kathleen Raviele.
I learned the Creighton Method of natural family planning from Dr Raviele and have been using the method ever since. For 19 years Brad and I have been NFP believers and I am here today to explain to you why NOT using contraception is the best way to live out the vocation of marriage.
- Why was I drawn to NFP and how does it fit into God’s plan for marriage?
The reality of living out my life according to God’s plan, not my own plan, is what kept me digging into NFP. Being able to give myself to God and say “ok – I am following you completely, I’m all in. Now what?” was very appealing to me.
Soon after I came into the church I started attending a women’s bible study and also became an adoration guardian. I wanted something concrete to do to show myself and God that I was fully committed to Him, like the amazing women I met in bible study and the adoration chapel. With NFP you are definitely fully committed to God’s plan for your life. And that plan may be different that what you have in mind. That’s the beauty of it. He knows what’s best for us – and He gives us what we can handle. Sometimes He stretches us and sometimes He gives us a rest, but God knows us better than we know ourselves. He is able to bring out the best in us through NFP.
Through NFP couples live out the wedding vows they take.
Standing at the altar, the priest or deacon asks them: “Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage? Do you promise to be faithful until death? Do you promise to receive children lovingly from God?” Then, having committed to loving as Christ loves, the couple is meant to incarnate that love in sexual intercourse. In other words, sexual union is meant to be where the words of the wedding vows “become flesh.”
The free exchange of consent properly witnessed by the Church establishes the marriage bond. Sexual union consummates it – seals it, completes it, perfects it. Sexual union, then, is where the words of the wedding vows become flesh. The very “language” that God has inscribed in sexual intercourse is the language of the marriage covenant: the free commitment to a union of love that is indissoluble, faithful, and open to children.
So, married couples here tonight, think about that the next time you have sex. You are physically acting out your wedding vows. Makes it different doesn’t it?
Natural family planning is self giving, not selfish. Both husband and wife put the other first. Which is frankly the very simple recipe for a happy marriage – mutual submission. Sex without contraception is mutual submission physically. When sex is unitive and other oriented, life giving, and exclusive to the spouse then it is amazing. It is a total offering of self. I have live both ways – contracepting and not. For the first 6 years of our marriage when we were not Catholic I was on the pill. And sex is totally different when we don’t use contraception. We are giving ourselves to our spouse without reservation, trusting the spouse saying, I love you with my whole self. Not to mention how crummy the pill makes you feel. It mimics early pregnancy.
John Paul II teaches in Theology of the Body that the physical union of the spouses that generates new life is the crux of God’s plan for marriage. The beautiful love of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit processes from the communion of the Father and Son) is mirrored in the love of the spouses that generates new life in the same way. We get to participate with God in creating new life! What a privilege!
Couples who practice NFP are better communicators. They have to talk about their sex lives as part of NFP and that flows into better communication in all parts of the marriage.
NFP couples are less likely to get divorced and their children are more likely to stay faithful to the Church.
- Are there really other Catholics who take the contraceptive rule seriously? Including ones who can read?
Yes! There are other Catholic couples who practice natural family planning. Among Orthodox and committed Catholics, the church’s teachings on sexual ethics are taken very seriously. There are many highly educated and accomplished Catholic women who live without contraceptives. It’s not just a rule for us, it’s a whole different approach to life and sex and marriage.
Of course there are also lots of lukewarm Catholics who can’t be bothered about what the Church says. Still others think of themselves as faithful Catholics, but get most of their cues from popular culture, which convinced them that the whole non-contraceptives rule was archaic. For a long time the clergy went along with not teaching about the beauty of NFP. Lots of Catholics had their priests telling them contraception was ok. Since St John Paul IIs Theology of the Body was published, the teachings have become so well known and received that the clergy has had to wake up to the truth of Church teaching on not contracepting being the authentic reality of married life.
- Do natural methods of delaying pregnancy really work? Or do NFP couples all have 15 kids?
The rationale behind natural fertility methods is pretty straightforward. A man’s fertility tends to stay fairly constant from one day to the next, but a woman is typically fertile for just a few days each month. The trick, then, is to figure out which days those are by observing external physiological signs – generally temperature or mucous. That information can be used either to achieve a pregnancy or to delay it.
How easily NFP is practiced depends on the woman’s cycle. The more regular you are the easier it is to keep track of your cycle. As someone firmly in the irregular category, I understand how stressful it can be to be constantly wondering whether you are or might be pregnant.
But it’s also exciting! A new child of God could be growing in your womb! And I always knew God would provide us with whatever we would need, spiritually, emotionally, physically, if we were to have another child. NFP increases Faith in God!
Still, nobody’s physiology is a completely closed book. Pretty much any woman can learn to identify at least occasional periods in which she almost certainly is not fertile. There is a method used today called the Marquette method which is used with great success by many women who are less regular.
Let’s not forget, though, that artificial birth control is also less than 100 percent effective. At least we Catholics know when we’re cracking the door for another possible family addition.
- Do friends and family think you’re crazy?
I think many of them do. But they are nice about it. I think on some level they respect the integrated way I’m living my life at as a Catholic mother and wife. My first two children are 16 months apart (on purpose!) but many people thought I was crazy then too! I always thought we would have four or five children, but God’s plan was for us to have three.
I don’t lose any sleep over whether or not people think Brad and I are weird (Jesus freaks) – we kind of are, so if the shoe fits….
- Doesn’t it stress your marriage to live contraceptive free?
No. Living out the NFP life is a blessing. We are happier and healthier, and so is our marriage, without contraception. We talk more, he knows my cycle sometimes better than I do. We are close in a physical way that non NFP couples will never understand. We both respect each other’s bodies more as creatures of God and we respect the discipline it takes to live this way. In fact being disciplined together is a great way to grow closer to God together. And after all that’s the point of marriage – to get each other to heaven!
My favorite thing about the days when I was fertile (I’m 51 now!) was when Brad would be calculating if it was a green or red day. Green means go!
Also, the days when we would be abstaining are very romantic. Like dating again. Courtship is a lost art that can regained in marriage through NFP.
- How many kids did we plan on having?
As I mentioned, I thought 4, 5 or more. But we ended up with 3. We are so grateful for our children and being parents has really allowed up to grow as Christians. The self giving nature of parenthood teaches us to put others first.
7. Isn’t NFP just Catholic contraception?
NFP is prayer lived out with our sexuality as husband and wife. If we are only doing it to avoid having babies, it could be used inauthentically and would resemble a contraceptive mentality. But lived out fully the NFP lifestyle is opening ourselves completely to God. We pray “give us this day our daily bread” and NFP helps us live that way.
It may take baby steps to get there. If you are thinking about getting started the first step is to learn about NFP. Then begin charting and not using contraception. Pray daily for the strength to stay on the right path. Talk to your spouse. Pray with your spouse. Talk to other couples practicing NFP. The journey together is a huge part of the beauty of NFP. You will get to the point where you love the process and where it has taken you. As a woman, offering your reproductive life to God is the fastest way to get close to Him. Your intimacy with God and your spouse will blow your mind!
- Do you sometimes wonder if you could have done something more interesting with your life for 20 years, other than being a stay at home mom open to babies? Why are you so old fashioned?
No, my life has been very interesting and exciting. Growing closer to God and Brad over the years has been an incredible journey. I have loved every minute of raising the three children God entrusted us with. Even the hard times when we have had to embrace the crosses that God put in front of us (think teenagers). I have been able to share my faith with my children intimately. I am so glad to have been able to give them a Catholic moral compass and love of God.
And now that they are older I am getting to live out my dream job of sharing God’s love and the beauty of the Catholic Church with others!
- Is it really necessary for the husband to be involved in NFP?
Yes, NFP only works if both husband and wife are full participants. Brad took all of the classes with me, even though sometimes I think he took off his glasses when we watched the videos about what different mucous looks like.
That’s what makes NFP so connective for the couple. You are working together to allow God’s plan for your married life to be made manifest. God’s love flows freely between the husband and wife because both are trying hard to follow God and His will.
NFP is the best thing to have happened to our marriage!