Natural Family Planning: Nature's Way - God's Way

3. Priest to Priest: Fr. Denis St. Marie

Priests are good guys. We are priests because we had high ideals and were willing to work hard to achieve them. We may not all be intellectual giants, but you couldn't be stupid and get through theological studies. The priesthood is a fine profession of men who have chosen a life of service. But why are so many of us apathetic to NFP?

Happy priests enjoy most working with families. As a matter of fact, whatever be the apostolate of the priest, it has some connection with the family. After all, everyone is somebody's child, if not a mother or father or sister or brother. Priests understand the importance of family life. Families and their problems are usually the chief interest of priests.

If it is true that most priests work closely with families, it is likewise true that they live vicariously many of the problems of those families. Not the least of those problems is child-spacing.

While it is said that some priests feel pity for those who practice NFP, more priests don't know what the letters NFP stand for. What is sadder still, perhaps, is that those who do know what NFP stands for equate it with the "rhythm method" and dismiss it forthwith.

Many priests doubt the value of natural methods, and most are quite unaware that there is any natural method besides calendar rhythm. This is not because priests are ignorant or malicious, but more likely because they have been kept uninformed or, worse, misinformed - often by the same laity they are trying to help.

During the past two years I have traveled to more than fifty different dioceses in Central America and Mexico, as well as the Caribbean. I have been giving talks as "priest to priest" on family planning and the teachings of the Church, with an explanation of the artificial as well as the natural methods of family planning. My faith in priests has been more than vindicated.

I have yet to find a diocese or group of priests who were not grateful for the opportunity for a patient and detailed discussion of family planning. It would be edifying for the laity to see the genuine interest priests have in problems of child-spacing. Very often, the comment of priests is that they never heard these things. They ask, "Why haven't the doctors explained these things to us?" (Doctors often lament that the priests have never explained to them the Church's teachings either.)

At first I was a little confused at the apparent opposition that I received from priests when I gave my conferences. They seemed to argue as though they were opposed to the teachings of the Church, especially Humanae Vitae. Then, little by little, I discovered the tremendous loyalty of priests to couples they so wanted to help. Their opposition grew mainly from a helplessness they felt when confronted with such big problems among so many couples. Like the couples themselves, they didn't see how they could possibly observe the Church's teachings. Also, no one was taking the time to explain the problem, the "why" of the Church's teaching and the "how" to solve them except through artificial methods.

Priests all too often labor under the prejudice that natural methods simply do not work. In many cases in the past, they promoted the "rhythm method" and they know - as the wry joke has it - have many children named after them. The laity convinced them that abstinence was all but impossible for normal, healthy couples. How strange that priests who live a life of abstinence didn't seem to recognize that that notion doesn't jibe with their own personal experience. (If the priest only knew just how much abstinence married people really do practice, he might feel himself less a hero.)

When the priest knows of no effective alternative to artificial methods, he may be inclined to keep silent on the Church's teachings. He asks himself: if he has nothing good to announce, what right has he to denounce the bad, particularly when the motives are so good? He sees the problems of the couples, and perhaps being a little weak in faith, he keeps silent on the Church's teachings.

But priests are good guys. They would like to know that there is an effective alternative. They appreciate an updating on the artificial methods, how they work, and what is their morality. So many think that the pill of today is the same pill they studied about in the seminary. They may think they can still suggest it for the regulating of the menstrual cycle, as if it had that effect. The IUD and the effects of sterilization all seem to get confused in their mind with the myriad of opinions and propaganda they hear each day. It is hard to distinguish a contraceptive from an abortifacient from sterilization.

It is true, but sad, that many of us priests have not kept up with our studies since we left the seminary. Parish duties are so demanding that we priests often find ourselves neglecting many areas of study. Unfortunately the progress of NFP over the past twenty years has been one of those areas of neglect.

Why are we priests not more interested in NFP? One of the answers is that the laity have not told many of us just how good it is, how many wonderful secondary effects it has on their family and on their marriage. At one conference for priests a teaching couple on NFP so infected the priests with their joy and enthusiasm for natural methods that the rest of us speakers became superfluous. In years gone by the laity convinced priests that the rhythm method would not work. Now, the laity can convince priests that newer methods do work, and work much better.

Laity working in NFP are doing a great service to the Church and to family life. They need and deserve all the support they can get from their priests. It is sad to confess that sometimes those same laity, instead of receiving support from priests, receive misunderstanding and opposition. But with more updating of information among the clergy, it will become clear just how grateful priests are for such help from their parishioners.

My approach has been to teach the negative first. We explain the theology of each artificial method and the harm it causes to marriages, to health and to family life. Then we teach our experiences in working with the World Health Organization's five-nation field study of the effectiveness of the ovulation method. We explain to them that the couples in the El Salvador part of the study were illiterate, undernourished, unmarried and often unhealthy or lacking the blessing of a sacramental marriage. Despite the adverse circumstances, every participant in the study there was able to identify the couple's fertile time in each cycle.

When we tell priests that the World Health Organization, in its preliminary report, indicated that it was as effective as or superior to any artificial method, they are startled and elated. They realize that there is an alternative they can practice, and while it isn't the easiest method it surely is the safest. I try to convince priests that if poor folks in the rural areas of El Salvador can make the method work effectively, the folks in their parish can do the same.

We priests are interested in the problems of family life. We are interested in the joys and successes as well. Teach us, and you will find us more than interested in NFP.

Fr. St. Marie is a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland. At present be is attached to CENPAFAL, the Latin American Episcopal Conference.

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