.- While debates over contraception dominate national headlines, promoters of Natural Family Planning aim to impart the depth of Church teaching on human sexuality to younger generations.
âGod gave us reasonâ along with the gift of sexuality, said Professor Janet E. Smith, who teaches moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Michigan.
Smith told CNA on April 18 that Natural Family Planning (NFP) is not an obligation to âlive without planning,â but a call to use reason while respecting the nature of human sexuality.
Supported by the Catholic Church, NFP is a method of spacing children by practicing periodic abstinence based on physical indicators of a womanâs fertility.
In an essay titled âThe Moral Use of Natural Family Planning,â Smith explained that although the Church teaches that âbringing forth new life is a great good,â this does not mean that all married couples have an âobligation to have as many children as they could possibly care for.â
Despite the cultural assumption that Catholics are required to ceaselessly procreate, Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical âHumanae Vitaeâ clarified that there are âserious reasonsâ for which a couple may seek to avoid conception âfor either a certain or an indefinite period of time.â
The spectrum of these reasons âis broader and perhaps more liberal than many think,â said Smith.
She noted that the Church calls married couples to use prudence in examining their physical, psychological, and financial conditions as well as other factors when looking at the future of their families.
Couples should not be selfish in their decision, and they are called to look âbeyond their own comfort and convenience,â but they can morally use NFP to prevent conception for a variety of reasons beyond mere health concerns, she said.
At the same time, it is important to explain that NFP is not simply the Catholic version of contraception, said Catholic convert and writer Jennifer Fulwiler.
Rather, Natural Family Planning is based on a âfundamentally different understanding of what human sexuality is.â
A mother of five, Fulwiler explained that even though each sexual act may not be aimed specifically at creating a new life, NFP always acknowledges that the human sexual act and the creation of new life are intricately connected â a concept she says has been abandoned by today's culture.
Fulwiler acknowledged that the practice âdefinitely has a poor image,â and while this is partly due to the way in which some NFP classes are taught, it is also largely caused by âcultural misconceptions.â
The secular world looks at couples practicing NFP who have large families and assumes that the method does not work to prevent pregnancy, an assumption that Fulwiler describes as âa mountain of misunderstanding.â
When you embrace the Churchâs teaching on human sexuality and life, you tend to be open to more kids, she explained, adding that this is not failure on the part of natural planning.
Presenting NFP can be challenging, Fulwiler admitted, because it is âvery difficult to sum up the fullness of Church teachingâ in a brochure.
She believes that one effective way to initiate a âdialogue with the cultureâ is to engage those who have had a negative experience with contraception. Once people have established that artificial birth control is not the perfect solution, they are more willing to hear a new view of sexuality, she observed.
âI think there is a big interest in women really listening to their bodies,â Fulwiler said.
After years of being told to âtake a pill and shut up,â women are eager for an approach that looks âat the whole woman.â
Emily Stimpson, author of âThe Catholic Girl's Survival Guide for the Single Years,â added that in promoting NFP to a secular world, Catholics should not shy away from presenting the level of self-discipline that is required.
We need to be âas clear as we can up frontâ in order to âset people up for success,â she explained. People need to ârealize that it is possible, but will take work.â
Stimpson said that arguments against Natural Family Planning based on the sacrifices it requires are âdangerousâ and reveal that the problems with contraception are part of a âmuch larger issue.â
As a culture, we should âbe careful where we set the bar for ourselves,â she warned.
If we donât cultivate these virtues in our sex lives, we wonât have them in other areas either, she explained. But if we do build these virtues, we will be able to make use of them in all areas of our lives.
In a world that is âfilled with temptation,â self-discipline is crucial, and a failure to develop it can lead people into disaster, both in their marriages and in other areas of their lives, she said.
The Church is not asking the impossible, stressed Stimpson, adding that she knows many people who are living out the Churchâs teaching on sexuality.
âIt is possible,â she said. âItâs just difficult.â
Developing the virtues needed for NFP is a process that should begin long before marriage, said Stimpson. Practicing the âbasics of Christian holinessâ can help single people achieve success with NFP after they are married.
However, people also âlike practical steps,â she added, suggesting the promotion of specific practices such as fasting that the Church has given us to build basic virtue and self-disciple.
Stimpson believes that the next generation is âvery willingâ to respond to the message of NFP. She explained that in addition to an aversion to chemicals and affinity for things that are radical and counter-cultural, young people have seen the results of a contraceptive mentality in their parentsâ generation and are longing for something better.
At the same time, she cautioned, younger generations are not always prepared to make sacrifices or take a more difficult path.
Still, she said, when presented with the complete and honest message of NFP, young people are often âopen to learning that thereâs a new way.â