A Catholic View on Love, Sexuality and Parenthood

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Today we kick off a weeklong series focusing on natural family planning, or NFP for short. This post is linked up with NFP Link Week hosted at the blog NFP and Me.

DISCLAIMER: This series is meant to inform and spark conversation about the Church’s teaching on respect for human life. While these answers are in-line with Catholic Tradition, they are by no means exhaustive or comprehensive. We are not bioethicists nor moral theologians and do not claim to speak on behalf of the Church in answering them. For more information, dive into resources provided by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. **Special thanks to Fr. Albert Bruecken, Conception Seminary College, and Adam Storey, Director of Marriage and Family Life for Diocese of Des Moines, for sharing inspiration, ideas, and words for this series.

About two years ago I was with a large group of people, all Catholic but of various life stages and ages, and as we chatted about this and that, I threw out the term “NFP.” A friend in her forties asked, “What’s NFP?” At first I was taken aback by her lack of awareness, but upon reflection, I’m not surprised she had never been introduced to the concepts of natural family planning. In spite of the criticism that the Catholic Church is fixated on sex, the Church hasn’t really talked all that much about it for several decades. Or at least the three I’ve been hanging around.

July 21 – 27 marks Natural Family Planning Awareness Week. The dates highlight the anniversary of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae (July 25) which articulates Catholic beliefs about love, sexuality, and parenthood. The dates also mark the feast of Saints Joachim and Anne (July 26), the parents of the Blessed Mother. Events such as Natural Family Planning Awareness Week might seem like simply lip service to some. But given the experience with my forty-something friend, I’m glad the Church is, at some level, talking about sexuality. Lip service is actually a good place to start — it’s better than no service at all.

Over the course of this week, Joel and I hope to give an NFP introduction to those who don’t know anything about it as well as a deeper understanding to those who don’t know enough. We might even clear up a few misconceptions together along the way. According to a recent study, 53% of weekly Mass-goers who accept parts but not all of Church teachings on family planning say they are receptive to learning more.

My unaware friend fits within that 53%. So let’s get back to her question: what is NFP?

Let’s start with an explanation given to us by Father Albert Bruecken, a monk at Conception Abbey in Missouri who we’ve come to know through Joel’s deacon formation classes there. Fr. Bruecken is an expert on Theology of the Body (yet another term thrown around a lot, and we’ll share more on that in this weeklong series).

So what is natural family planning?

* * *

When using Natural Family Planning, married couples choose to respect the natural rhythms of the wife’s fertile and infertile times of her menstrual cycle. They do this in order to attempt to conceive or not. These times can be reliably and easily observed. If they desire the gift of a[nother] child, they can decide to make love during the wife’s fertile time; if for some serious reason, they deem it necessary to postpone attempting to conceive, then they refrain from love making during the fertile times. It is a mutual decision about a serious matter — bringing new human life into existence with God’s help.

With NFP, there is some creativity, discipline, and sacrifice involved, but it is worth the effort. No negative side effects accompany NFP use. And, living the NFP lifestyle can help couples to grow in their respect for God’s design for married love. Through the practice of NFP, a husband and wife can deepen their respect for each other as spouses and for themselves as individuals. The NFP lifestyle also builds respect for the marriage bond, and especially the integrity of the unity of the couple. Practicing NFP can enable husband and wife to become more conscious of God’s role in building their family. Their faith, as a married couple, will grow and they will realize and live more and more the “one flesh union” that God has willed for them.

In the practice of NFP, husband and wife move their relationship into the context of God’s love — manipulation is no longer an option; it is no longer okay to use another human person or allow oneself to be used for the sake of pleasure, or convenience, or power, or any other motive (in fact, a person may never be used, only things are used!). “Respect” should live in marriage. The marital relationship should be framed by a commitment to give oneself in other-centered love. That is why the love is called “conjugal love,” it is total, freely chosen, fruitful, and permanent. Such love mirrors the love of Christ for us and draws the couple into the life and love of the Trinity.

* * *

Today, as the Church in America kicks off NFP Awareness Week, did you hear anything from the pulpit? If not, here’s the NFP homily you may have hoped to hear. It’s actually given by Fr. Bruecken at the Basilica of St. John in Des Moines, Iowa, on the first Sunday of NFP Awareness Week last year. In his homily, Father poses basic questions about the direction of the current culture in the wake of the sexual revolution. All his questions boil down to whether we’re building better relationships. Have the cultural changes on contraception helped or hindered our ability to respect the dignity of ourselves and one another?

See you again tomorrow when we’ll tackle some common NFP misconceptions. After all, isn’t NFP just the rhythm method? Hardly.

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