Faith Alive

Catholic News Service

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    It's a common misconception that the Catholic Church requires married couples to have an unlimited number of children.

    The church asks couples to prayerfully and prudently discern what God is telling them by their circumstances and in their hearts as to the best timing and number of children he's calling them to have.

    Natural family planning is the general title for the scientific and moral methods of family planning that can help married couples cooperate with God's plan to either achieve or postpone a pregnancy.


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    Natural family planning: Why and what

    By Theresa Notare

    Catholic News Service

    When it comes to sex and birth control, you may have heard that the Catholic Church says a resounding "NO!" This myth couldn't be further from the truth. Catholic teaching on love, sex and "responsible parenthood" is a resounding "YES!" -- to God's plan for men and women.

    Natural family planning is part of this "Yes" because it respects God's plan for married love. Let's take a look.

    -- God's plan for married love

    God designed married love to be total, fruitful, faithful and exclusive. It mirrors God's own Trinitarian love. This means that husband and wife offer themselves to each other as a gift. There is no "taking" here, just "offering" and "receiving."

    There is no exclusion of God's gifts, like denying God's will, the nature of marriage, one's person or fertility. Anything that counters the meaning and integrity of the marital act and God's call for life is avoided (e.g, artificial contraception, sterilization, pornography, in vitro fertilization or surrogacy).

    God willed that married love involves the entire person, including reason, a well-formed conscience in God's truth and fertility. It also means that husband and wife understand that openness to new human life is not an "add on" but an essential element of married life -- indeed God himself entrusted husband and wife with the gift of life.

    This is true whether a couple is fertile or not. When discerning if God is calling them to bring new life into the world, this also means that married couples ought not treat it casually.

    What does all this have to do with natural family planning (NFP)? Catholic teaching on the nature of human sexuality, marriage, conjugal love and responsible parenthood reflects God's loving design.

    The significance of NFP is that it is the instrument to help husband and wife live that reality. NFP respects God's plan, doing nothing to obstruct his design. That is why the church supports NFP use in marriage.

    -- NFP science

    NFP is the general title for the scientific and moral methods of family planning that can help married couples either achieve or postpone a pregnancy. NFP methods provide fertility education that is informative and practical.

    The facts of human reproduction form the basis of all NFP methods. Specifically, NFP methods attempt to identify the fertile window of husband and wife.

    The fertile window is the combination of information about the woman's day of fertility (ovulation, which occurs only within a 12-hour to 24-hour period) and that of the man's fertility (sperm, which can live in a fertile woman's body for up to five days).

    When a woman is fertile, her reproductive hormones will send messages that yield specific and observable signs. Recognizing the pattern of those physical signs forms the basis for most NFP methods.

    -- NFP methodology

    NFP methods provide guidelines to help couples pinpoint their "fertile window."

    Most methods teach couples how to track this information. How well a couple follows their method's guidelines will determine the effectiveness. When a couple discerns that God is calling them to conceive, they may use the fertile window for conjugal relations.

    Conversely, when spouses discern that it is time to avoid a pregnancy, they will abstain from sex during this time. Periodic sexual abstinence is the NFP means to avoid a pregnancy. No drugs, devices or surgical procedures are ever used.

    Does NFP work?

    Any couple can use NFP. The key is to learn the method well, be aware of your family planning intention (achieving or avoiding pregnancy), cooperate with each other and apply the guidelines consistently.

    NFP does not depend upon a woman having regular menstrual cycles. That said, sometimes couples may need help when they can't easily interpret their fertile signs or are in a special reproductive circumstance, such as breastfeeding. In those cases, NFP teachers can assist.

    When looking for an NFP method to learn, you should know that there is no "best method." All NFP methods are based on solid science. Choosing a method depends upon how much fertility information a couple needs and can live with!

    -- Who's who?

    Each NFP system is organized according to the information that they teach.

    There are methods that teach how to interpret only the cervical mucus sign. Others teach multiple fertility signs (sympto-thermal). Still others are called sympto-hormonal because they include information from a fertility monitor. And a few do not teach the signs of fertility but instead rely upon mathematical formulas of real NFP charts.

    In the United States, there are a number of NFP providers. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website provides a list of these providers (

    -- Give NFP a chance!

    NFP provides sound fertility education. It is environmentally safe and has no harmful side effects. NFP education is also economical. Most providers charge fees for instruction and any resources -- that's it!

    Most important, NFP respects God's plan for marriage. It promotes spousal respect, chastity and mindfulness of God's will. It may not always be easy, but if a couple perseveres, NFP can help to strengthen their relationship with each other and God.

    (Theresa Notare is the assistant director, Natural Family Planning Program of the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.)


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    Natural family planning helps us communicate, brings us closer to God, couples say

    By Anna Capizzi

    Catholic News Service

    "It was shocking for us how it worked," said Aryn and Sean Sylvester, referring to their use of natural family planning (NFP) in the early days of their marriage, some 16 years ago.

    Just four months prior to their wedding day, the Phoenix-based couple realized that "we wanted to do something to provide for the spacing of births and postpone pregnancy, but we did not want to do anything artificially."

    Raised as Catholics, they knew the Catholic Church's teaching on NFP "on some level," but didn't know where to turn. After connecting with an instructor, they learned the sympto-thermal method, which involves monitoring and charting a woman's fertility indicators such as cervical mucus and basal body temperature.

    "Basically, we just embraced it -- as scary as it was," said Aryn, "it was just one of those leaps of faith."

    "We started talking about a subject we had never talked about," she admitted. "We started talking about sexual intimacy right away because you kind of have to."

    For the couple, the experience has been transformative. "It changed our perspective of what love is," said Aryn. "Lines of communication opened way up," said Sean, and it "changes the dynamic of the relationship" and how you view your spouse. "We approach things from a united perspective."

    Good communication has likewise been a happy result of using NFP for Beth and Kevin Mitchell, a couple from La Crosse, Wisconsin, married 13 years.

    "It opens up your communication line, which in turns open up to the spiritual factor," said Kevin. Beth said the practice "helps remind me on a monthly or daily basis that God's in control -- he's in control of my body and our relationship."

    "So often I get the question from my family: Are we having (more) kids? How many are we going to have? Things that I don't have the answer to because we leave a lot of that up to God," explained Beth. "We let God have a hand in that say."

    And God has had a say. The Mitchells first turned to NFP two years into their marriage when they wanted to have children -- a testament to the fact that NFP works in two ways: achieving or postponing pregnancy.

    A 2003 study examining the sympto-thermal method found that 80 percent of couples seeking to achieve pregnancy conceived during the first six cycles of a woman's reproductive cycle.

    Now, five children later, the Mitchells are "more intensely following the rules" and appreciating the challenge of showing "physical closeness without being sexually intimate."

    "I don't think society today appreciates that's even possible," said Beth, but it's something she values. "Knowing that anytime Kevin wants to rub my back doesn't have motives behind it; it's just because he loves me."

    All NFP methods require a period of abstinence for couples avoiding pregnancy, which proves difficult for some. The Sylvesters refer to abstinence as a type of "fasting" that's "automatically built" into their marriage, and was "an area of struggle for us in the beginning."

    But with fasting comes spiritual gains, and the couple call abstinence "one of the great benefits of NFP."

    "Abstinence is not easy," said Aryn Sylvester, but "it changes the way you look at your spouse. It can rekindle things." And, her husband added, "it forces you to relate to your spouse in a way that you might not be used to. It can become more acute or more in your face, after you've been married longer."

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that "these methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them and favor the education of an authentic freedom" (No. 2370).

    One person using a device or taking a pill, said Beth Mitchell, "will not foster any 'mutual-ness' like this does. It's a partnership versus one person being a gatekeeper."

    (Follow Capizzi on Twitter: @annamcapizzi.)


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    Natural family planning and sacred responsibility

    By Marge Fenelon

    Catholic News Service

    When a Catholic man and woman enter into marriage, they enter into another sacred institution at the same time -- "responsible parenthood." The term refers not only to the raising of children, but also to the decision of when to have them.

    The U.S. Catholic bishops' website calls it "the call to discern God's will for your marriage while respecting his design for life and love."

    It's a common misconception that the Catholic Church requires married couples to have an unlimited number of children. Large families are a blessing, but the church is aware also that not everyone is suited to having numerous children.

    The church isn't against limiting the number of children. It's against refuting God's natural law, negating his will for the sacrament of holy matrimony and using artificial contraception or using abortifacients that end pregnancies. That's a huge difference.

    The magisterium asks that couples carefully and prayerfully discern what God is telling them by their circumstances and in their hearts as to the best timing and the best number of children he's calling them to have.

    The objective is to understand and follow God's will for that particular husband and wife and not the goading of others or the selfish or misdirected self-will of the couple.

    "A particular aspect of this responsibility concerns the regulation of procreation. For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality," the Catechism of the Catholic Church states. (No. 2368)

    For example, putting off children because a couple wants to travel first or has other superficial material goals in mind is wrongful.

    Putting off children -- or limiting the number -- because there are serious health problems rendering one or the other incapable of adequately caring for children could be a good reason.

    In this regard, the church advocates the use of natural family planning (NFP). Some people wrongly think of NFP as the "rhythm method" and consider it unreliable. Rather, NFP is a method of measuring the woman's fertility to both achieve and avoid pregnancy.

    NFP respects God's design for married love and is safer and more effective (when used correctly) than artificial contraception. Many couples witness that NFP brought them together as friends and intimate partners.

    The "Standards for Diocesan Natural Family Planning Ministry" explains it this way:

    "NFP reflects the dignity of the human person within the context of marriage and family life, and promotes openness to life and recognizes the value of the child. By complementing the love-giving and life-giving natures of marriage, NFP can enrich the bond between husband and wife."

    The message and method of NFP are the same: Respect life. Children are a precious gift and should be treated as such. The church asks not that we have children unreasonably but rather that we have children out of love for God and each other. It's a sacred responsibility.

    (Fenelon is a freelance writer from Milwaukee. Her website is


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    For more information on natural family planning, visit the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website:

    To learn about the sympto-thermal method, visit the Couple to Couple League's website:

    To learn about the Billings Ovulation Method and take online classes, visit:

    To learn the Creighton Model and find fertility care centers, visit:

    To read about NFP methods that use hormonal tests (sympto-hormonal) like the Marquette method, see:

    To watch a video series on marital love and responsible parenthood, available in Spanish and English, visit:

    For a summary of Catholic teaching on the moral prohibition of some assisted reproductive technologies see:


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