Natural Family Planning: The Right Kind of Course

I offer the following suggestions about the kind of NFP course that will assist the pastoral and teaching roles of the Church.  I stress the “right kind” of NFP course because an inadequate NFP course may lead to continued marital unchastity and a lack of appropriate generosity in having children.

1.  The right kind of NFP course must be education in Christian discipleship.  The course must place Jesus as the reason for fidelity to the Christian marriage covenant and all that it entails.  Mutual self-giving, fertility awareness, generosity, and chastity must all be taught in the light of Christian discipleship.  The right kind of NFP course must teach that Jesus is the reason for chastity within marriage as well as outside of marriage.  The Church cannot “sell” chaste natural family planning on purely natural grounds.  Yes, the natural methods are more than adequate as a form of birth control, but it takes more than fertility awareness to say NO to temptations to sexual sins during the fertile time.  It takes an open heart and a real spirit of Christian discipleship and self-control.

2.  The right kind of NFP course must be required as a normal part of preparation for marriage.  It is not sufficient to “encourage” attendance at an NFP course.  In the United States we have had 40 years of “encouragement” and the results are apparent.  About two-thirds of Catholic married couples were still obedient to Catholic teaching on birth control a few years prior to Humanae Vitae, but probably only two percent are currently faithful to that teaching today.

3. In the right kind of NFP course, the call to generosity in having children needs to be strongly affirmed.  Marriage is for family.  Having more than two children is not just “nice.”  In most cases it is obligatory for the practical survival of the Church.  Priest friends who went to Ars for the Year of the Priest also went to Paris, and one of them observed that the Arab women were carrying babies while the westernized women were carrying briefcases.  One of those priests recently closed his Catholic parish school, and he sent a letter to his parishioners and his bishop stating clearly that the practice of contraception, including sterilization, was the root cause of the school closure.  Parish-supported schools need sufficient numbers of tuition-paying students to have teachers.

4.  In the right kind of NFP course, the language of serious reason (seriis causis in H.V. 10 and gravia in H.V. 16) needs to be used.  In English, the language of justae causae easily becomes “just ’cuz,” that is, “just because” we feel like it.  Recognizing that the use of justae causae, probabiles rationes, and justae rationes in section 16 seem to soften the language of seriis causis, I suggest, and have used for many years, the term “sufficiently serious reason.”  I can witness that for many NFP-user couples, the most difficult part of using systematic NFP is making the decision about another child.  This problem does not exist or is greatly reduced among couples who decide to use ecological breastfeeding as their exclusive or primary means of spacing babies.

5.  In the right kind of NFP course, the anti-contraception teaching of Casti Connubii, Humanae Vitae, and the Letter to Families needs to be strongly affirmed.  Please note that in his 1994 Letter to Families Pope John Paul II did not suggest that ordinary couples study his massive Theology of the Body.  Instead he wrote: “In the conjugal act, husband and wife are called to confirm in a responsible way the mutual gift of self which they have made to each other in the marriage covenant. (12.12)” My wife and I have been teaching in our NFP instruction for forty years that “Sexual intercourse is intended by God to be at least implicitly a renewal of the marriage covenant.”  People of good will can and do grasp that simple statement almost intuitively.

6.  In the right kind of NFP course, ecological breastfeeding needs to be explained and encouraged during the preparation for marriage as part of a required NFP course.   God Himself made woman in such a way that frequent suckling by her baby at her breasts postpones the return of fertility for more than a year in most cases.  This is not an old wives tale.  We have done the research and have published the results.  Mothers who practice the seven standards of ecological breastfeeding experience an average of 14.5 months of breastfeeding amenorrhea (the absence of menstruation).  That means that if they get pregnant during the first complete cycle, they will average about two years between childbirths.  Of course, an average is an average, and there is a range from very short to very long durations of amenorrhea.  Only seven percent experience less than six months of amenorrhea, and one-third were still in amenorrhea at 18 months.  About 70 percent experienced between 9 and 20 months of amenorrhea.  On the other hand, breastfeeding-in-general with its cultural components of pacifiers, bottles, babysitters, early introduction of other nourishment, and infrequent suckling episodes has almost no effect on the delay of fertility.  That is why we stress that the seven standards of ecological breastfeeding must be taught, as follows:
1. Breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life.
2. Pacify your baby at your breasts.
3. Don’t use bottles and pacifiers.
4. Sleep with your baby for night feedings.
5. Sleep with your baby for a daily-nap feeding.
6. Nurse frequently day and night and avoid schedules.
7. Avoid any practice that restricts nursing or separates you from your baby.

These are simple-to-grasp maternal behaviors, but they can be difficult to practice in certain cultural and socio-economic conditions.  Nevertheless, they need to be taught so that the couples can make a more fully informed decision about the form of baby care they will give their children.

7.  In the right kind of NFP course, all the common signs of fertility and infertility need to be taught.  God Himself made woman in such a way that she experiences a discharge of cervical mucus and physical changes in the cervix before ovulation and an elevated temperature pattern after ovulation.  All of them are important.  Couples must be given adequate information about all the signs so that they can make an adequately informed choice.

8.  The right kind of NFP course must teach explicitly against the sins of marital unchastity to which couples will be tempted during times of abstinence.  I refer specifically to masturbation, whether mutual or solitary, and to marital sodomy whether by oral or anal copulation.  Please bear in mind that oral-genital copulation during the fertile time has been recommended by a secular book on natural birth control.  Please also be aware that according to a survey of U.S. east coast teenagers, almost half had engaged in that perversity.  Since some of those same people may find themselves in a diocesan-sponsored NFP course, it is truly imperative that such courses teach the sinfulness of such activities.  People have witnessed to us that before they took our instruction, they were using their own form of “NFP” with mutual or solitary masturbation during the fertile time.  One couple who took an NFP course taught under Catholic auspices but with no mention of marital chastity practiced mutual masturbation for eight years before they read our book and changed.  It is easy to teach against withdrawal and condoms on the practical grounds of the risk of pregnancy, but only spiritual motivation will help the couple to avoid the other sins of unchastity.  I have been informed by a well placed source that most of the teachers in most of the NFP programs in the United States do not feel comfortable talking about these sins of marital unchastity.  These sins are definitely not my favorite subject either, but we can teach what needs to be taught in only a few lines of text, as one can see from our manual listed below.

9.  The right kind of NFP course must affirm the role of the Magisterium in teaching the truth and the need for Catholics to practice the obedience of the Lord in accepting the teaching of the Church on love, marriage, sexuality and responsible parenthood.  In some quarters, obedience is downplayed as if all we need is fertility awareness or as if obedience doesn’t apply to adults.  On the other hand, while the Lord Jesus practiced all the virtues, the only virtue of Jesus that is specifically mentioned in Sacred Scripture, to the best of my knowledge, is obedience.  Further, he showed us that obedience is not only applicable to dependent children but also to mature adults even at the price of life itself.

10.  The right kind of NFP instruction needs an adequate text that incorporates all of the factors listed above.  Our manual, Natural Family Planning: The Complete Approach, was written to fulfill these requirements.  (part of letter, October 19, 2010)

John F. Kippley

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