Catholic Church’s Teachings on NFP
By Paul Natinsky
Natural Family Planning (NFP) is not what it used to be and for many, that is a good thing.
Gone are the low success rates of the “rhythm method” and the guessing game couples played when trying to naturally control the growth of their families.
“The rhythm method is a very old method and I would frown at anybody teaching it today, because it’s not very effective,” said Fanar Kashat, who has been teaching NFP for 14 years. “I joke when I teach my classes that I am a product of the rhythm method. It’s not very effective; it’s about 70-80 percent.”
Kashat currently teaches pre-marital couples classes at Mother of God Chaldean Catholic Church in Southfield. “Newer methods rely on women charting biological indicators daily and have success rates close to 100 percent,” she said. The two most popular charting methods include the Billings Ovulation Method and the Symptothermal Method. In both cases, the key indicator is cervical mucus. Women learn to monitor the consistency and color of the mucus to distinguish fertile days in their cycles from those that are not.
“If someone wants to have more than one data point, they may like the Symptothermal Method more. If somebody says well, ‘I don’t want to take my temperature every morning, I want something that’s simple,’ they might like the Billings method more,” said Kashat.
The Symptothermal Method requires daily body temperature checks and factors in a number of other indicators including cervical position, mid-cycle cramping and mood, according to the Christian Family Planning website.
“If you don’t look at the cervical mucus, you can throw any method out the window,” said Kashat. Indeed, just using temperature without looking at cervical mucus brings the success rate down from the high 90s to 70 or 80 percent, according the same website.
While there are health advantages to refraining from hormone-based birth control pills and surgical procedures, for Catholic couples the main appeal of NFP is that it is consistent with the church’s teachings.
“In the ‘60s, there was a church document published by Pope Paul VI, called Humanae Vitae. The document laid out the church’s teachings on life issues and contraceptives,” said Fr. Pierre Konja of Mother of God Church. “It was very prophetic in its teachings against contraceptives and the church has been under criticism since then.”
The church is consistently against contraceptive use of any sort. These are viewed as interruptive methods. These include, oral contraceptives, hormonal IVs, condoms, vasectomies, tied tubes, and other things of that sort that are directly against, “openness to life,” said Fr. Pierre.
“The procreative aspect of sex is not divorced from the unity aspect,” said Fr. Matthew Zetouna of St. George Chaldean Catholic Church in Shelby Township. “What I mean by that is sex is supposed to have two elements always present: a unitive element, bringing two together in love and freedom; and then also it is, by nature, procreative. So, to divorce one of those factors from the nature of sex is to not give the act itself it’s sacred due.”
For priests and teachers, working with young couples on this topic, it can be challenging and refreshing. “It’s not an easy topic to teach,” said Dr. Silvana Younan, an internist who has been teaching NFP at St. Thomas Chaldean Catholic Church in West Bloomfield for the past year. “I feel sometimes these couples find this to be intrusive. When we present these classes, we tell them from the medical aspect what we’re there to teach them. I also try to help them from the moral aspect why our faith wants us to follow natural family planning.”
A major concern among couples is the effectiveness of NFP. “You had these methods like the rhythm method that are out there and are natural, but are not effective,” said Kashat. “So, it jades the reputation for NFP.”
The other concern is the work involved. “We live in an instant gratification society,” said Kashat. “NFP is work. You don’t just take a pill, or put a condom on and move on with your life. It takes work to take the class, to learn how to chart, and to be disciplined at following it.”
Fr. Pierre added that, “the Western world is very much accustomed to have a selfish lifestyle, one, maybe two children maximum and then you get so overburdened with stress. People from big families learn to sacrifice, how to love, and that the world doesn’t revolve around them. They are better parents because of some of these qualities.”
However, Fr. Matthew reports that couples are more enthusiastic about NFP. “There are a lot of Catholics, especially Chaldeans, nowadays that are hearing about NFP and they are saying to themselves, okay, this is what the church says, I’m going to do it,” he said. “They are very comfortable talking about it, and I’m happy about that because in the Chaldean community it’s, taboo to talk about sex and issues related to sex.”
Those involved in teaching NFP agree that there is a fine line between acceptable uses of NFP, and using the technique as a de facto form of birth control. Financial hardship, medical considerations and even finishing graduate school were cited as possible legitimate reasons to delay family growth.
It seems the motive for using NFP is at least as subject to forethought as employing it. In many cases, teachers and priests challenge parishioners to consider their decision prayerfully and ensure that they are not putting off having more children for selfish reasons.
“The majority of practicing Catholics disagree with the church on this teaching,” said Fr. Pierre. “They either disagree with it verbally or they disagree with it in practice.”
He continued to say that he would challenge his parishioners to understand that church teachings are supportive of their happiness and reflective of their relationship with God and not arbitrary or archaic.
Classes are generally available at Catholic churches, though they vary in length, content, and whether they are a required part of a pre-marital curriculum.
Online resources on natural family planning include:
– http://www.woomb.org/ – a website centered on the Billings Ovulation Method
– http://www.christianfamilyplanning.org/symptothermal.php – a website containing detailed information on the Symptothermal Method
-“Green Sex” – a presentation by Jason Evert on the virtues of NFP