Part 1: What is Natural Family Planning and why is it required as part of marriage preparation in the diocese?
In today’s society, the concept of birth control is common knowledge for any child that’s reached puberty. From sex education to television ads to conversations between teenagers on the back of the bus, they have at least heard of contraceptives and “the pill.”
However, the term Natural Family Planning? Get ready for blank expressions. For Catholics growing up in the Church, the term “NFP” might be known, but the process can be a mystery until they find out that taking an NFP course is a required part of marriage preparation in the Diocese of Little Rock. With constantly emerging technology, there are new ways, from apps to online training, that teach NFP methods to young adults.
Natural Family Planning is observing the natural signs of fertility during a woman’s menstrual cycle to determine when a woman is fertile or infertile to either achieve or avoid pregnancy. During a fertile time, couples abstain from intercourse and genital contact rather than using contraceptive drugs or devices to avoid pregnancy. To determine when a woman is fertile, various methods are applied that require charting of physical sensations, such as the consistency of cervical mucus and basal body temperature.
Catholics today often mistake NFP for the calendar rhythm method, which tried to predict fertility based on lengths of previous menstrual cycles, making it less effective for women with irregular cycles. NFP uses symptoms-based fertility awareness.
According to the Center for Disease Control’s most recent Family Growth Survey from 2006 to 2010, only 0.1 percent (with a standard error of 0.05 percent) of women surveyed between the ages of 15 to 44 use a modern NFP method to either avoid or achieve pregnancy. Women who have ever used it and are no longer using it (for various reasons including a current pregnancy, contraception or are now sterile) is 4.6 percent for modern methods and 19.4 percent for self-defined “rhythm” methods.
In a more recent survey, about 62 percent of women aged 15 to 44 were currently using a form of contraception based on 2011-2013 data. According to that survey, 98.6 percent of the women who identified themselves as Catholic had used a form of contraception at least once in their life.
The 0.1 percentage is a sad statistic, admits Dr. Michael Manhart, executive director of Couple to Couple League International, headquartered in Cincinnati. The organization teaches NFP around the country with couples as certified instructors.
“I think one thing, people are largely uninformed or misinformed. If you talk to most physicians they’ll quote you the fact that NFP is only 75 percent effective with postponing children,” Manhart said, explaining that number is derived when the survey mixes modern proven methods in with everything from “old-fashioned” methods such as calendar rhythm to people who venture out into tracking their fertility on their own. “I think it’s a cultural thing. The gift that we have to create new life is looked at as a disease.”
And that, Manhart said, is where the Church needs to take control of the conversation.
“It’s been Church teaching forever and the whole issues of contraception, abortion, infanticide, those were around in the ancient world. They just didn’t have drug companies advertising on TV,” Manhart said.
According to a 2009 consumer report on Nielsen.com, “Drug stores dominate all channels in the sale of contraceptives, generating 64 percent of sales in the category.”
“When people hear constantly that the healthy and right and smart thing to do is use contraceptives, they begin to think that’s truth,” Manhart said.
With passage of the Affordable Care Act, Manhart said, “contraception has been defined as an ‘essential preventative service’ so it’s now treated by the government as a public health issue on par with vaccines for deadly diseases.
“It denies women who they are. By using contraception we suppress a normal, natural process,” he said. “The good news is Jesus came and said there’s a different way to embrace life. I think for the Church to be more open and unafraid of (NFP) would be helpful.”
The concept of NFP can be thought of like a baby — it’s growing steadily in the Diocese of Little Rock, but it’s up to the young couples to decide whether to adopt it.
The use of periodic abstinence has roots in the early Church, but the biggest push for modern NFP rooted in fertility awareness came from Pope Paul VI in his 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae.”
It states in part, “The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse. God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws. The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”
Therefore, while every martial act of sexual intercourse does not have to produce life, the Church teaches it must be open to life, without the use of contraceptives. As Pope Francis said in January, it “does not mean a Christian must make children one after another.”
“Some people think — excuse me for saying this — that to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits,” Pope Francis said, adding that the Church provides “many licit ways” to avoid pregnancy, including NFP.
One of the hurdles the Church has had to overcome is the misconception that NFP is the same as birth control.
“The difference between birth control or any type of contraception and Natural Family Planning is that it’s natural in God’s eyes. So you can talk about chemicals and other ways of doing this, but the reality is, ‘what does God want for our bodies?’” Elizabeth Reha, diocesan Family Life Office director, said. “When St. John Paul II was talking about Theology of the Body and the goodness of our bodies, why would we complicate that with chemicals or other types of tools to circumvent what’s already been created in us as natural?”
Though NFP classes have been offered through the Diocese of Little Rock since the 1980s, it wasn’t until 2010 that a campaign was spearheaded by Father Erik Pohlmeier and Reha to make NFP education a requirement for marriage preparation in the diocese.
“I’ve seen the benefit it brings to marriages. First of all, its long been a part of the Church teachings,” Father Pohlmeier said, adding that its teaching has largely been misunderstood or ignored. “The biggest benefit is faithfulness in marriage living up to the promise on your wedding day … giving of your total self in a sexual relationship. With contraceptives of some kind, it’s not a total giving of self.”
The requirement was implemented in January 2012 when only eight other dioceses in the country had made it a requirement for marriage preparation. While that number hasn’t changed on a diocesan level, some parishes are beginning to require NFP courses for marriage in a specific church.
“It’s a trend that’s moving toward a full course” of NFP, Reha said. Even those who are convalidating their marriage within the diocese and are of child-bearing age must take the course. Because NFP is all-natural, there are cases where a couple may be resistant. For example, NFP does not prevent against sexually transmitted infections. However, Father Pohlmeier said there’s no “blanket statement” about not using NFP.
“There are no situations where we’d say to somebody ‘Don’t use NFP,’” Father Pohlmeier said, explaining that what counsel or advice is given to each couple depends on the couple.
“There’s a lot of factors involved. The objective is to share the teaching in the Church and the pastoral way of helping someone live in the Catholic Church … I’m faced with situations where it’s difficult for a couple, but there’s never a situation where I’d say you shouldn’t use it.”
In Arkansas this year, there are 35 to 40 classes offered in eight to 10 cities, including Rogers, Fort Smith, Little Rock and Jonesboro, Reha said
Out of 501 couples married last year in the diocese, approximately 140 to 150 couples enrolled in an online or virtual NFP course, according to the diocesan Family Life Office.
It’s a trend that makes sense in an increasing mobile society — people shop, socialize and connect to the world through the internet.
“People today don’t want to read. It’s the YouTube generation — they want to watch,” Manhart said.
Shari Drakes, a registered nurse who lives in Hot Springs, has been a certified Creighton Method instructor since 2005. She’s taught many couples without having to leave her home.
“Ninety percent of my clients I see via Skype,” Drakes said. “I prefer it; I can sit in my PJs and they can be in theirs.”
Though she sees more than just marriage prep couples, her marriage sessions, which can include about six sessions, can cost more than $200, not including material fees. Reha said the diocese offers scholarships for couples unable to pay the fees associated with a course.
Drakes is the only certified Creighton Model instructor in Arkansas.
Online courses through Couple to Couple League of Arkansas, Northwest Family Services and Catholic Marriage Prep are all approved by the Diocese of Little Rock to count as part of the marriage prep requirement.
In 2014, Manhart said there were 156 engaged and married couples taught through CCL of Arkansas, with 20 percent (32 couples) online and 10 percent (16 couples) via home study.
“That’s a trend right now so we offer online, but we prefer face to face,” Reha said. “When you experience a class one-on-one you have immediate assistance in interpreting your charting and learning the method. There is a level of communication in the learning experience that enhances the explanation of how the method works. The instructors can give personal examples along with scientific information.”
The Couple to Couple League has three types of classes offered by teaching couples: in-person classes held at churches or parish halls; live online class, with the teachers and anywhere from two to 40 or so students that communicate via an internet video feed; and a home-study course. Each type of class makes sure the students are in touch with a teaching couple for either instruction or questions.
Manhart said this fall, the home-study course will be replaced by a self-paced online study program. In 2013 on a national level, 11 percent of couples took a live online class through CCL. In 2014, it jumped to 16 percent.
“Our live online classes are very popular. It’s about convenience and intimacy. Sometimes talking about this stuff in a room full of strangers can be” an awkward experience, he said. “I think it will be perceived as the easiest, fastest way to go through the learning.”
Part 2, next week: NFP at work in the life of young couples; a doctor weighs in.
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