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Why Teach Natural Family Planning in Marriage and Family Preparation Courses?

Written by Fr. Joseph Hattie, OMI
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“Why teach natural family planning in marriage preparation courses? We don’t teach it in our program.” Often such a question is asked as a challenge – perhaps it is viewed as inconsequential compared to other aspects of marriage, or it is viewed in its narrowest sense as merely a means to achieve or postpone a pregnancy, or perhaps one is looking for a real reason to teach it in one’s own parish or diocese. In reality, the teaching of Natural Family Planning (NFP) responds beneficially to many of the major needs and challenges the engaged couples bring to a marriage course, and contributes considerably to the holistic formation of the couple preparing for marriage.

For example, many couples come to a course looking for advice about budgeting or for tips regarding conflict resolution. One of the principles of good budgeting is do not buy what you do not need. Learning about NFP makes the couple aware that they do not need to buy contraceptives, in whatever form. Deciding to use NFP can result in considerable financial savings for many couples. Additionally, since the Billings Ovulation Method™ helps a woman to monitor her own reproductive health, and indirectly her overall health, this also can lead to considerable savings regarding money spent on health issues.

With respect to conflict resolution, most couples think that they need to learn ‘techniques’ in order to communicate. But real communication is deeper than this. Techniques only deal with the visible symptoms, seldom leading to understanding and dealing with the deeper cause of the conflict. Sex in marriage can often be a source of conflict due to both a lack of understanding of each other as masculine and feminine persons, and the corresponding respect that such an understanding brings to a married relationship. NFP goes to the source of this conflict, teaching the couple more about each other as masculine and feminine persons and the basic laws of human fertility. As a result, it helps couples to introduce more dialogue into this important area of their lives, removing much conflict, and in turn, lowering the potential for conflict in other areas as well. The husband, for example, will find it much easier to talk objectively with the facts of the chart in front of him. He will be more willing to submit his sexual desires to the scientific information presented on the chart. It also benefits the wife, since she does not have to say, “Not tonight, dear, I have a headache”. If need be, she can simply say, “Are you prepared to have another child at this time?’ It is a sobering question.

There are other aspects of marriage toward which NFP adds its distinctive contribution. Brides-to-be usually come to the course with the hope that marriage preparation will contribute to a deeper relationship between her and her fiancée. NFP, when lived as a way of life, definitely assists this. It provides opportunities for more dialogue, and co-responsibility for the gift of their fertility. It gives the husband a special means by which he can grow in his appreciation of the mystery of his wife as a feminine person, which in turn creates a greater reverence for the marriage bed.

True to the desires of the male psyche, NFP helps to make a better man out of the husband-to-be, helping him to better understand his own masculinity and the gift of his male fertility. It gives him a broader and deeper understanding of what it means to be a protector of and provider for his wife. What may not appear obvious is that a knowledge of and a living of the Billings Ovulation Method® as a way of life is itself a form of protecting one’s wife from the many side effects of contraception, some of which are very dangerous. One man I know wished very much that he had been this kind of protector of his wife: When she was 39 and they had had four children, they decided to go on the “Pill”. The side effects it caused in her body resulted in her death.

Additionally, NFP helps husbands to be protectors of their wives dignity, particularly by exercising the manly art of periodic abstinence, for the benefit of his wife and family.

NFP helps the husband to be provider for his wife as well, in the sense that his self-mastery provides an environment in the home for her to live her feminine dignity with ease and confidence. In so doing he also provides a more loving environment for his children to grow into responsible, loving adults.

Becoming this kind of protector and provider is well illustrated by a story told, some years ago, by Dr. John Billings. He had been invited to teach the Billings Ovulation Method® in an African country where it was part of their culture that the men would be taught what was new first, and in turn, they would teach their own wives. Dr. Billings taught them the Method, and then returned a year later to do further teaching. At that time, he was approached by one of the husbands he’d taught the year before.

The man said: “I want to thank you for what you have done for me and my family. Last year when you came, I owned a house, goats, children and a wife. When we started to live the Method I began to realize that I had a wife, children, a house and goats. Now, a year later, I have come to realize that we have children, a house and goats. Thank you!”

We’ve contended that NFP contributes to the holistic formation of the engaged couple, and this is especially true in the area of spousal sexuality. Many of the engaged couples come to the Course not really expecting to learn anything new about sex, but with an often unspoken desire to make it more meaningful or more of a total gift of self. NFP instruction makes them aware that they do not know everything there is to know about sex. It also teaches them how they can bring so much more of themselves personally to the act of intercourse in their marriage. They can bring all of themselves, and make it a true, total, mutual gift of self to each other and to God. Women are often more tuned into the total gift or its absence. A couple who had been using the “Pill” decided to learn the Billings Ovulation Method®. After living the method for a while, the wife, a psychologist, said, “Now I am totally present in our conjugal love. Before I never felt that I was totally present in the act.”

The BOM is not just a method to achieve or postpone a pregnancy. It is a means to help the couple live a way of life that is totally respectful of and open to the truth, dignity and goodness of one another, in their masculinity and femininity, and at the same time, an openness as a couple to God and his plan for their lives. This brings a new insight to the question to be asked at their wedding ceremony: “Will you love and honour each other all the days of your life?”

The teaching of NFP, often by contrast, helps the couples to not only understand the difference between the conjugal act in the NFP context and the contracepted conjugal act, but also to begin to see the absence of the good, that the evil of contraception brings about in their sexual activity and in their lives. It is often a shock to realize that the contraceptive act expresses a refusal to accept the full truth of each other as the masculine and feminine persons God has created them to be, as well as a lack of accepting God as He is: Creator and Father.

A little biology and understanding of the symbolism of the husband’s sperm can help us to visualize this: If one starts from the fact that a husband’s sperm is alive with his life and that in the conjugal act he is giving and entrusting the gift of his life and its future to his wife, she responds to that gift with the gift of herself and her stewardship of his life. When the husband uses a condom in their act of intercourse, biologically what happens is that the husband deposits his sperm, alive with his life, not in his wife’s body, where she can receive this gift and give the gift of herself in return, but he deposits his life in the sterile environment of the condom, entrusting his life and its future to the condom, and then flushes his life down the toilet. With contraception, there is a rejection of one’s being made in the image of God – the Creator-Father in a communion of love – and thus a rejection of the male’s fatherhood, of the woman’s motherhood and of the couple’s imitative procreation with the Creator.

Because of the many benefits of NFP, teaching it in marriage and family preparation courses requires patience, especially during the Course. The truth has its own power to persuade, as our recent Popes have often reminded us. Sometimes one sees the truth persuading before the course finishes - “Father, we have decided to no longer sleep together and to wait until we are married.” At other times, it takes time to reach fruition. Last year, I met a couple where the husband began by saying, “Father, you will not remember us, but we took your marriage and family preparation course 20 years ago in the Vancouver area. I was angry at what you were teaching about conjugal love, family planning, contraception and natural family planning. My wife to be, who was not a Catholic, calmed me down and said to me, ‘I think that we had better listen to what the Church is teaching.’ A few years later, with the encouragement of other couples, we began to put it into practice. Since then, my wife has become a Catholic and I am a better one.” And he concluded, “Someday, Father, I would like you to meet our eight children.” Later on, I did have that privilege.

At times one can be concerned about how couples will respond to the teaching on NFP or if they will come back for further follow up. Usually, the response of the couples has been one of amazement as to both how scientifically sound NFP is, and to its simplicity. There are some in the medical profession who are also amazed, but wonder if it is true since they were not taught this in their studies. And do couples come back? Yes, if we are patient. Some, like the good soil in the parable of the sower, want to meet with a qualified teacher as soon as they can. Others, often because they waited to take the course close to their wedding, come back a year or so later. And still others, because of the hardness of heart caused by the contraceptive mentality of our society, will come back later if they need help in achieving a pregnancy.

So, why teach NFP in marriage and family preparation courses? Because to do so adds so much to the formation of the couple in many areas – from the couple’s intimacy and sexual relationship, to their interpersonal communication, to their health, and even to their finances - with benefits far beyond the boundaries of pregnancy avoidance or achievement.

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