This summer marks fifty years since Bl. Pope Paul VI wrote his wise and prophetic document, Humanae Vitae. One of the pastoral challenges since has been to convince God’s people that Natural Family Planning (NFP) is the only means of legitimate birth regulation, and is ultimately good for them as spouses.
This naturally led to a reliance on marketing tactics and messaging to convince people to abandon what the wisdom of the world tells them is true about artificial contraception. This messaging paints NFP as easy to use, pain free, and worry free, with pictures of bright, happy couples and long lists of the benefits.
However, experience shows us that practicing NFP does not automatically lead to a monthly honeymoon experience. Practicing NFP doesn’t always keep your relationship “fresh, fun, and flirty.” Sometimes it adds stress. It doesn’t automatically make you closer as a couple. And practicing the method is not always easy.
We’ve learned that not every menstrual cycle is alike—among different women or even for the same individual. Stress can cause variation from month to month. Some women have short fertile windows, some long. Some have clear biomarkers, while others highly complicated or unclear markers. Some women have other health conditions that affect using NFP. Some methods work well for some couples, other couples struggle to find the right method. Some NFP problems are biological and others are deeper problems within the marriage. Some couples face indefinite periods of abstinence because biomarkers are inconsistent, and a pregnancy could be disastrous.
Still, the message remains the same.
NFP is good for couples, but not in the sense that a particular method or the concept of NFP will automatically bring individuals closer. NFP is good for couples because the very nature of its difficulty, if borne with the mind of Christ, becomes the vehicle to conjugal holiness. Pope Paul VI states in Humanae Vitae:
The honest practice of regulation of births demands first of all that husband and wife acquire and possess solid convictions concerning the true values of life and of the family, and that they tend towards securing perfect self-mastery. To dominate instinct by means of one’s reason and free will undoubtedly require ascetical practices, so that the affective manifestations of conjugal life may observe the correct order, in particular with regard to the observance of periodic continence (HV, no. 21).
Thus, our “marketing” shouldn’t paint the idyllic picture of effortless joy by following a particular method. We shouldn’t spend our pastoral energies trying to soften the message that, in reality, is the message of the Cross—as the Christian message always is—and that joy, peace, and serenity are real, but come from embracing the self-mastery Pope Paul described. Our pastoral energy should be directed toward serving as Simons of Cyrene, accompanying couples as they carry their crosses, with the appropriate gentleness and sensitivity.
In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis alludes to this aspect of pastoral activity when he states, “the initial years of marriage are a vital and sensitive period during which couples become more aware of the challenges and meaning of married life. Consequently, pastoral accompaniment needs to go beyond the actual celebration of the sacrament” (AL, no. 223).
In the Diocese of Lansing, we are trying to be those Simons of Cyrene: being real with couples and helping them carry their crosses. One key way is to educate in non-sexual intimacy; thus, when a couple must abstain, they can continue intimacy. We have a full-time diocesan NFP director who is well-trained in all the NFP methods.We have also invested in intensive training for doctors, nurses, and consultants who assist couples with practical application or help pinpoint the reason for difficulty. We have anecdotes from couples who have found not only clarity and peace, but also healing from various ailments. These couples become forceful ambassadors for the Church’s teaching.
We are exploring trainings in Humanae Vitae and the Theology of the Body to help counselors identify the difference between an “NFP problem” and a “marriage problem.” We want to help pastors identify “ambassadors” or mentors with NFP experience to befriend a less experienced couple. They can walk with the couple on their journey. They can speak credibly and frankly about their difficulties and witness how a life of asceticism and self-mastery can result in increasing love.
Now is the time in the New Evangelization to direct energy and resources to personally and skillfully accompany couples through the difficulties of putting this lifestyle into practice. If they experience support through the accompaniment of the Church, they can live the demands of Christian marriage with the serenity and peace Pope Paul described so many years ago.