Human Life Education

Chapter Eight: NFP and Family Life

1. "Three Decades of Promoting NFP"

Fr. Paul Marx, OSB, Ph.D.
Reprinted from
Natural Family Planning
Nature's Way - God's Way
De Rance, Milwaukee, 1981.

My three decades of work with couples in the NFP apostolate have been most rewarding, leaving me with great joys, positive memories and happy experiences. I find that couples practicing NFP are very happy couples.

Calendar rhythm was much more successful than most people seem to realize today, that is, provided the method was understood properly by the couple using it. True, irregularity of cycles increased the amount of abstinence required. But I learned early that the amount of physical sexual activity in a marriage was by no means an index of the happiness and joy of the couple. The humanist Erich Fromm has observed that love is not the result of sexual satisfaction, but sexual happiness is the result of love.

As a celibate, I wondered why couples who deeply loved each other found continence not to be a major problem. The paradox was illuminated when a young husband told me, "Father, if husbands and wives really love each other, they will know many ways to express love." I began hearing couples talk about the courtship and honeymoon phases during each menstrual cycle. Some husbands and wives used to say that the practice of rhythm was "exciting" and even adventurous.

In the early days of NFP, the occasional pregnancies that occurred contrary to plans were accepted as proof that God, after all, was in charge; that was a time when children were always considered a blessing from the Lord. Couples who wished to avoid a pregnancy but experienced one nevertheless often felt that God wanted them to have this special child who, properly raised, would honor Him for all eternity. Besides, children are meant to make saints out of their parents.

It became more and more evident that Catholic couples who practiced rhythm were by no means at a disadvantage compared with those who resorted to condoms, diaphragms, spermicides and withdrawal, all of which had and still have high failure rates. Contraceptive practice is often accompanied by impulsive intercourse. (Also the abortifacient Pill and IUD, which came to the scene later, have high user-failure rates.)

In many discussions with contracepting non-Catholics it came home to me that contraception does not promote good marriage and family life; actually it unleashes the sexual instinct to the deterioration of the relationship, and leads to aberrations like spousal exploitation, fornication, adultery, perversions, sterilization, abortion and eventually euthanasia.

On the contrary, NFP enhances the communication of the couple, asks no more of the wife than it asks of the husband, produces a healthful insight into the real nature of marital sexuality, love and biblical two-in-one relationship; not least, NFP occasions a sexual maturity and bond that contracepting couples often fail to achieve.

It continues to be a joy to see NFP couples become the natural teachers of sexuality and NFP to their own children; the parents are virtuous models of authentic masculinity and femininity. Because they are basically pro-life, NFP couples come to the defense of the unborn. Experiencing the benefits of NFP, these couples also applauded the wisdom of Humanae Vitae. I might add that in thirty years I cannot recall a couple who began their marriage understanding and practicing NFP who ended up with a separation or divorce.

As I look over the past now, I recall that those married couples who struggled with their sexuality, and who sometimes endured lengthy periods of abstinence, often had children who opted for the religious life or the priesthood or both. In general, the children inherited from their parents a respect for the sources of life. The couples who make sexual technique their top priority appear to have a difficult time achieving true happiness in marriage.

Abstinence does make the heart grow fonder. In the process such couples enrich their "love-making," since continence itself is an eloquent expression and proof of concern and love for one another and for their family. Besides, as Gerald Van has written, "You don't make love, love makes you."

Periodic continence can enhance affection. I vividly remember the wife who told me that every night she fell asleep in her husband's arms. Anther said, "I have the proof of my husband's love in his willingness to abstain for my sake and that of the children."

Then there were the wife and husband who argued vehemently with me in defense of the legitimacy of contraception. Afterwards the wife told me privately, "Father, if I see my death coming, I surely want to confess to a priest how many years I have contracepted." It appears to me that popularity-seeking priests who try to assuage consciences in this area, do not succeed.

Actually the qualities that make a marriage successful are the same as those that enable couples to practice NFP successfully. When a marriage goes bad, many priests blame the Church's birth-control teaching, whereas what is really at fault is the marriage relationship. As Mormon sociologist Reuben Hill has remarked, sexual intercourse is a brutal truth session, reflecting the couple's total life-pattern together.

Still, real difficulties in promoting NFP also come to mind. I have always been amazed that so few married couples and also so few priests understand the God-made human reproductive process. The human reproductive system is astonishingly unique; it is quite distinct from that of the brute animal. I regret very much that the Church, in most places, does not routinely provide engaged couples with information necessary for NFP....

The practice of NFP, in so many cases, helps to build beautiful families and saves them from the horrendous sexual abuses that are sapping the foundations of the West. Thank God that we are now, after all these years, moving into an age when bishops are providing full programs for marriage instructions, including NFP, in their dioceses. I look for a better world and a much healthier more vigorous Church, with married couples who are proud to implement in their lives the teachings of this Church, radiating good influence over the entire human race, illustrating once again that the Creator of Man and of sex has also shown us how to live out our lives beautifully.

2. A Philippine Experience

By Sister Helen Paul

The question is asked whether NFP is only for white, suburban, upper middle-class people, or for ordinary folk. Let me speak from the experience I have had in the Philippines, and also in the Archdiocese of Newark.

I believe that NFP as an educational program, is applicable and valuable for couples everywhere. I believe that NFP can give a couple fertility control, whatever their purposes may be. it can do much more than that: it can build the marriage relationship through sharing the responsibility for the gift of fertility, and through the development of mutual respect.

The reason I believe this is related to the experience of teaching NFP on the Island of Mindanao in the Southern Philippines, in the Province of Bukidnan. There I had the opportunity to observe marvelous growth of persons, an increase in marital harmony, in from 4,000 to 5,000 couples whom we were able to reach with this educational program, over a period of eight years.

There were farmers, fishermen and others. I'd say that the farmers and fishermen were 95 percent, the engineers, nurses, doctors and such only 5 percent of the population. We began the program in an effort to help families with an average of eight children per family, With an income of $1.00 per day, it was just impossible to feed, educate and clothe them properly.

We went to the homes, taught them personally rather than in groups. Those reaching them were their social equals. The couples succeeded in controlling their fertility and much more, as the report of the employer indicated: population growth diminished, and a remarkable improvement in the law-and-order situation in the camps of the laborers was noticeable.

The thing that impressed me most, and keeps me interested in this program today, is the fact that it's a beautiful opportunity to observe persons grow. A change seems to occur in an individual's self-image, the way a man sees himself as a man. He becomes a person aware of his dignity, a person worthy of respect; a person who can expect respect from his peers, from his wife, and his children. His personal discovery of self-control in his sexual life opens up to him the opportunity for change in other areas: gambling, smoking, alcohol. it is interesting that a change in an individual's self image opens to him a possibility for change in many other areas of life.

The children used to comment about the change in mom and dad. No more fighting at home, they say. And when this happens within a home, the children apply it in their own relationships. We see this change in behavior of children because of the change in the parents.

Here in New Jersey I was delighted to meet couples who have the patience to try NFP. I believe that this is the key phrase for success: the patience to try. It takes only a very short time to discover that you really can manage this system, which is not at all as complicated as it may seem at first. And these couples have not only tried it themselves, but they live it each day, and have gone on to promote it among others, to share the values that they have discovered enhancing their own marriage.

In our work for the Newark Archdiocese, we have made efforts to reach the foreigners. We have learned that here too, as in the Philippines, the large gatherings are not the acceptable way to reach these people, Spaniards, or Cubans, or South Americans. They need the privacy of person-to-person approach. But I am very confident that there too, as in the Philippines, within six months they will have the courage and enthusiasm to go out and speak publicly of fertility control as a couple.

I believe that American Society needs a challenge. I believe that couples need to be challenged to try NFP. Marriages today are in dire need of assistance. One of the strongest ways to assist marriage is for the Church, doctors and others to offer couples the practice of NFP.

I believe that if couples are encouraged to try-encouraged by their clergymen and their doctors--then NIT is for all couples, regardless of their standing in society. I believe that not to challenge them is to underestimate their potential, that God-given potential which lies within each person.

Given at a workshop on NFP at St. Mary's Abbey, Marristown, New Jersey, Jan. 23, 1979.

3. A Gift That Lasts

By George and Sylvia

Sylvia: George and I have been married 21 years, and we have seven children. Many people ask why we teach NFP when we have seven children. It happens that we changed to NFP about four and a half years ago when our youngest child was born. (Notice that I didn't say "last child was born"!)

George: When we teach NFP, we don't let anyone know that we have seven children until we've locked the doors!

We have a program of four meetings. The first is designed to teach couples when they are in phase three, that is the infertile time after presumed ovulation. We teach couple-oriented fertility-awareness, since this is a couple's responsibility, not that of one part of the couple...

Sylvia: We were married 17 years and had seven children when we started looking around for something to help us limit our family size. At different times when the children were being born I guess I thought about some special kind of contraceptive; but I know that George believed in living by the Church's teachings, so I decided that in order to keep our marriage as happy as it was, I should go along with his beliefs. Then, just about the time our seventh was expected, I noticed an ad about an NFP program in the Trenton Diocese, and I made a telephone call arranging for us to attend.

George: Our seven children were a result of practicing rhythm. We're the people who gave rhythm its bad name! But while we practiced rhythm as ineffectually as we did, the decision about whether to abstain or not to abstain was always Sylvia's. She made the decisions. Now we went to the Trenton meeting to see whether we could learn something which would give us a little better track record than this rhythm had

The most enlightening thing I witnessed there was that the husband' gave most of the instruction. So here we had a husband involved in what for us had been a one-party responsibility.

And it was a surprise to us that we gained confidence in the method so fast, after only two or three cycles. I think that the key to this was that we had something we could see, and that we could both share.

Also, we now discussed sex much more than we had done before, I guess that after the first meeting, on the drive back home, we discussed sex more than we had done in the previous 17 years of our married life.

Sylvia: When I think about NFP, I think about abstinence, because that is what NFP really is. You cannot use NFP unless you abstain. Many people think, "Why bother? That's not necessary any more." But we think fertility is a gift from God. And we don't think that any mistake was made. With NFP there is no need to alter our fertility; we can arrange to live in harmony with it.

Being aware that now is the fertile time, and choosing to abstain during it, can be beautiful in marriage. Love can still be expressed, verbally, physically, and emotionally. This can be a very secure time, knowing that you are loved as a person, and that this love will not now result in intercourse. Living with this awareness of our fertility and knowing the wonderful powers we have to create a new life has enhanced our belief in God as the Creator of life.

George: On the way over tonight, Sylvia said to me, "You have to say something nice about abstinence tonight." It isn't the first time she told me that. "The whole method is dependent upon abstinence," she said, "so we have to talk about it. "

Now, as I say, I'm a little bit uncomfortable with discussion about abstinence. To say something nice about abstinence is like saying something nice about your mother-in-law. It's just not done. But I've been thinking about why I'm uncomfortable in discussing it, and I began to realize that you cannot talk about abstinence alone, out of context ' Abstinence cannot be separated from sexuality. it doesn't stand on its own. It's part of God's plan for sexuality.

Abstinence gives us a challenge. It prolongs, excites, and fulfills our sexuality. It makes it worthwhile. It makes this gift that God has given us last.

Next Page: Chapter 9: Motherhood is golden
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