As a follow up to the story on why I stand behind the United States Council of Catholic Bishops and over 2000 other religious leaders in the US regarding the violation of religious liberty in requiring insurers offer ALL insurance plans provide for contraception/sterilization/abortion inducing drugs – hence forcing those who object to violate their religious beliefs in being forced to pay for such products and services – it seemed an appropriate time to discuss the ‘why’ behind Natural Family Planning (NFP).
Let me provide a little background before I get started, because I didn’t always feel this way about NFP. Years ago, before I converted to the Catholic faith, my husband and I attended a daylong seminar entitled something along the lines of ‘Heavenly Sex’ (for true!). It was offered by the Archdiocese of New Orleans (also for true!) and it seemed an interesting topic for a talk. Honestly, I had *no* idea what would be discussed but the title was intriguing. We spent the day with roughly 200 other couples listening to a Priest discuss the Theology of the Body. This was the first I’d heard of this particular Theology, but my eyes were opened – and wide.
I had been previously unaware that the ‘old and stagnant’ Roman Catholic Church had been headed by a Pope – John Paul II – who had made it a mission as part of his Papacy to bring to the surface the teachings of the Church as it pertained to human sexuality. His ‘Theology of the Body’ teachings had been encapsulated in 129 general audiences in which he walked through each and every aspect of humanity and its relation to sexuality. This was fascinating news to me and it changed my entire perspective on understanding the Church’s position on marriage, birth control, sterilization and abortion.
In a nutshell, it confirmed for me the intention of the act of intimacy between a husband and wife to be to produce offspring. Does this mean that it can’t be enjoyed? Not at all – quite the opposite. In fact, medical studies have shown that those attempting to become pregnant fare better when they fully participate and are engaged. Coincidence, I think not. To summarize, the Church teaches that artificial contraception is an attempt to ‘override’ God’s will and to define one’s own destiny. While I was enlightened as to the ‘why’ behind the teachings, I still was in the ‘my will be done’ headspace and not ‘thy will be done’ and couldn’t cross the hurdle into the world of Natural Family Planning.
They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and this proves to be the case over and over in my life. Fast forward a few years and beyond the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) where I learned more and more about the history and teachings of the Church and the subsequent discernment process I underwent to be confirmed into the Catholic Church. Entering into the Catholic Church meant that I would enter into the Church as a full and complete participant believing *all* of the teachings of the Church. I struggled somewhat along the way with the idea of transubstantiation, but had a beautiful experience that sealed the deal for me.
Those who know me know that I am a ‘rule follower’ but I am not a ‘blind’ rule follower. I read, I study, and I struggle to understand in order that I can say ‘yes, I am willing to follow those rules because I believe in them’. This was a requirement for me in being confirmed into the Church. Of course, the rules said that the marital act I was to share with my husband would require me to be ‘open to the possibility of conception’. Don’t think I didn’t question the idea of artificial contraception. I spent a long time in discussion with a Catholic Doctor arguing the idea that since no form of artificial contraception had a 100% success rate, wasn’t I then also being ‘open to the possibility of conception’. He explained to me that the difference was between the ‘artificial’ and the ‘natural’. By placing a ‘barrier’ – either literal or in the form of drugs – I was closing myself off to God’s will. Okay, he got me and I understood. I still, however, struggled.
It wasn’t long after this that a friend was discussing her own experience with NFP and the ‘why’ behind it for her. She summed it up beautifully:
As a Catholic am I willing to say ‘God, I trust you in all aspects of my life – except this one.’
This absolutely encapsulated it for me and I was convinced. Nervous, but convinced.
My husband and I attended NFP classes given by the Couple to Couple League. We were one of roughly a dozen couples in the class and, surprisingly, not the oldest (we were the second oldest). Our instructors were a lovely couple who had four children and been practicing NFP for over 20 years and it had been 20 years since the birth of their last child. It would be hard to argue, with four children, that their ‘success’ rate in preventing a pregnancy for over 20 years had been a result of fertility issues.
We learned the sympto-thermal method in which you would chart three different symptoms to monitor your monthly fertility cycle: your temperature, your mucous, and your cervix. As a type A personality, I liked that idea of not being reliant on only one aspect to trust where you were in your cycle. One of the first things that we were taught was that this method is 99% effective WHEN PRACTICED PROPERLY. That last part is highlighted because I hear over and over and over – ‘I know so many couples who got pregnant while practicing NFP’. There are several NFP methods and the couples I know who got pregnant all admit to not practicing it ‘to a t’.
We began our journey charting and, at first, it seemed like a nuisance. After a very short while, however, it became a part of my daily routine – as natural as brushing my teeth or getting dressed in the morning. I realized that the entire ‘process’ took me all of one minute of my day. Aside from the minimal effort required on my part, my husband took an active role in actually being the one to note the items on our chart so that he also played a part and the onus wasn’t just on me to keep track of everything. The respect and care he showed for me by partaking in this was was entirely unique to this particular method and I began to really appreciate this aspect of our marriage.
His role would expand, however, in that NFP works by identifying your most fertile period of the month. Couples who employ NFP to space pregnancies must – egads! – abstain from intimate relations during this brief period of their cycle. I know, I know… this doesn’t fit in with our ‘anytime, anywhere, anyhow’ instant gratification model of society – why ever would one want to do THAT? To look at this phase of the fertility cycle in that way is to minimize the impact it can have on a marriage and a man’s respect for his wife – and even her respect for her husband – in overlooking the restraint they must exhibit if they wish to avoid pregnancy. Generally speaking, this phase of one’s fertility cycle lasts roughly five days. To suggest that one cannot go without being sexually engaged for five days is downright insulting to any member of the human species.
For our marriage, this method is a respect for natural law in which the act of intimacy is intended for procreation and a willingness to accept God’s will. I know many, who when I told them of our plans to employ NFP in our marriage, placed bets on how quickly I would become pregnant. Its been almost three years and so far – 100% effective!
The beautiful thing about NFP is that its just what it says it is – ‘Natural’. I am not pumping my body with class one carcinogenic synthetic hormones by way of the birth control pill making my body think its pregnant for years on end. As an aside, I did try the pill long long ago and learned very quickly how bad it is for your body when I experienced practically every side effect they had listed on the box. NFP doesn’t require that I walk around with a foul looking insert into my uterus to prevent pregnancy or cause spontaneous abortions by creating a hostile environment in which a fertilized egg cannot implant itself into the lining of my uterus. NFP doesn’t require that my husband and I have a latex barrier between us – wow, *that’s* romantic! NFP doesn’t require that I *never* be open to another child by undergoing tubal ligation or having my husband undergo a vasectomy. Having said all that, my intent is in no way to criticize those who choose any of those paths. I know that none of those are for our marriage.
NFP requires that my husband and I *work* together and that we respect natural law. It provides us with a mutual respect that we didn’t have prior to engaging in NFP and a complete openness toward one another. As time has progressed, it has become entirely ‘natural’ for us and my love for its methods and philosophy has grown tremendously. On a side note, NFP has also proven to be very effective as a method of achieving pregnancy. NAPRO technology has an even higher effective rate than in-vitro fertilization.
Incidentally, it costs nothing – well, virtually nothing. All we need is a thermometer, a pen/pencil, and paper. That’s it. Oh – and a little self control now and then.