Catholic Herald Staff
July 22-28 is celebrated as National NFP Awareness Week; Pope Paul VI’s document Humanae Vitae was issued July 25, 1968. The 2018 theme “Generations of Love” acknowledges the 50th anniversary of the document addressing human life and its transmission.
Natural Family Planning is understood as the various fertility awareness methods, which combined with periodic abstinence, comprise morally acceptable forms of responsible parenthood without compromising God’s plan for the unitive and procreative aspects of marital sexuality. Marriage preparation is one of the primary means the Church uses to expose and introduce couples to NFP.
Mike and Peggy Czerniak, parishioners at Medford’s Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish, have been involved with local marriage preparation courses for 25 years.
Acknowledging that numbers have dropped in recent years, the Czerniaks see a yearly average of 15-20 couples in the parish’s program, which is offered in spring and fall sessions.
With specific regard to engaged couples’ exposure to the Catholic position on family planning, Mike said, “All through the years, I don’t believe couples have really any understanding of what NFP is. At best, they may have heard rumors about the rhythm method.”
The rhythm, or calendar, method was one of the earliest attempts to identify the window of infertility based on a woman’s menstrual cycle. Not taking into account any of the variances that affect a woman’s cycle, it was proven ineffective and replaced with more precise methods.
While secular medical sources – such as the WebMD and Mayo Clinic websites – still reference the rhythm method as a form of natural family planning, the Catholic Church has not promoted it for decades.
Scientific methods based on various signs of female fertility and infertility continue to be honed. The USCCB website’s section on NFP divides them into three groups: cervical mucus methods (such as the Billings or Creighton models), sympto-thermal methods which cross-check signs of fertility (such as Couple to Couple League and various diocesan programs) and sympto-hormonal methods assisted by ovulation predictor kits or fertility monitors (specifically the Marquette Model out of Milwaukee’s Marquette University and its College of Nursing’s Institute for Natural Family Planning).
“Our sense is that if they have knowledge of (NFP), they’re not comfortable disclosing that,” Czerniak said. “For all practical purposes, there are almost none that really have knowledge about what it consists of.”
He did acknowledge an increase “in recognizing the value in trying to work more towards the holistic element of NFP.” He affirmed that couples have greater interest in an organic lifestyle in general and are intrigued by the concept of non-hormonal birth control. However, he believes that increase is not in any way connected to “something that the pope is specifically saying we need to follow.”
As NFP is introduced during the marriage preparation course, it is done so in the context of the sacrament of marriage, God’s purpose and plan for marriage and family life, the gift of children and responsible parenthood.
Czerniak said they do emphasize the ability of NFP methods not just as ways “to manage or limit family size,” but their ability to help couples struggling to achieve pregnancy. He said this is an attention-getter for many, “because they know friends or family struggling with starting a family.”
In regards to a perception that following the Church’s teaching on openness to life inherently means numerous children, Czerniak acknowledged, “I think that’s an element – a misconception that’s out there just like the limited perception of what NFP actually is.”
Czerniak echoed that stance, saying couples’ “perception of the unlimited (children) rather than being prayerful and responsible” in discerning their family size.
He sees that, even among couples involved in their faith, they still don’t know what the Church teaches about sexuality and family planning. They lack the foundational knowledge of the whys behind these teachings. He affirmed it is likely not something parents are passing on to their children, or that parents themselves never had a good understanding.
Asked what most couples were seeking through the courses – a Catholic marriage or marriage in a Catholic Church – Czerniak struggled to find words.
“You have a mix there,” he said, “some that are very engaged, some that still want that Catholic marriage, but (are) limited in (their) weekly involvement.”
Czerniak said during the couples’ chance to interact at the NFP session, there is a sense in the room that they are “a little bit surprised on what they’ve just learned. Participant couples are provided with NFP resources and course offerings from the Diocese of Superior and Diocese of La Crosse websites.
“A good percentage of the couples are rather intrigued with it, and where they go with it from there, that we don’t know,” he added. “Our purpose is to spark enough interest for them to pursue a course.”