Question 61

ARTICLE: WORKING WITH NATURE: 20 Years into Marriage, Couple Embraces NFP

20 Years into Marriage, Couple Embraces NFP

By James DeCrane
Catholic Anchor Writer

The homilist at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Anchorage broached a sensitive topic last fall — one which is rarely heard from the pulpit.

Speaking that day, Deacon Ken Donahue felt obliged to encourage parishioners to embrace natural family planning (or NFP) as opposed to artificial contraception. 

As the only form of family planning in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church, NFP allows couples to conceive or avoid pregnancy by working with, rather than against, the designs of nature.

As might be expected, the deacon’s homily sparked considerable discussion throughout the parish. 

“I was honestly shocked,” said parishioner Lisa Leisle. “I thought there was more leeway (to use artificial contraception).”

After Mass that morning, Leisle went home and had a frank discussion with her husband David. His response was to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church for the final word. 

“We looked at (the Catechism) and decided that there isn’t a lot of leeway — especially when it uses words like ‘intrinsically evil,’” 

Lisa said, referring to the Catechism’s teaching on the use of contraceptives. 

After their discussion, the Leisles made a life-changing decision.

“It was the last day I took the pill,” said Lisa. “I went on-line in the next couple of days to find out about NFP — and we’ve been practicing it ever since.” 

Leaving room for God

Inspiration for the NFP homily occurred to Deacon Donahue after a number of conversations he had with couples in marriage preparation classes. “When I mention NFP, people look at me like I am an artifact from another age,” he explained. “It’s one of the principles of Catholic teaching that people don’t think applies to them.” But for many couples, including many Catholics, information about NFP is largely unknown or misunderstood. The teaching, however, is quite clear, Deacon Donahue said, adding,“there is no wiggle room.” The reasoning behind the principles of NFP is simple, he explained. It is the only type of birth control that allows God to have a hand in the purposes of human sexuality, purposes which God created. 

Allowing for discernment

Openness to life is a key component of Catholic moral teaching.

When the Leisles told their 15-year-old daughter they were practicing NFP, she worried that she might have a new brother or sister in the near future. 

The church, however, does not instruct couples to have as many children as biologically possible. “We explained that our intent is not to give up (contraception) so we can pop ‘em out till we are fifty,” David said. “But we are doing this in a natural way.” Deacon Donahue said it is important that couples prayerfully discern whether to have children. The Catechism affirms that there are just reasons for spacing pregnancies. It adds, however, that couples should be generous when determining their family size and not limit it for selfish reasons. 

Most effective birth control

In preventing pregnancy, NFP methods are more effective than contraceptive methods, said Pam Albrecht. Albrecht helps coordinate the Natural Family Planning office for the Anchorage Archdiocese and is a certified instructor in one form of NFP called the Billings Method.

“The statistics are about 99.5 percent effective for the Billings method,” she said. 

Australian doctor John Billings, at the request of his parish priest, developed the method in the 1950s. In using the Billings approach, women monitor their fertility cycles each month. Couples can use NFP methods to either help achieve or avoid pregnancy. 

Another effective NFP option, called the sympto-thermal method, tracks a woman’s fertility cycles based on changes in body temperature.

As Deacon Donahue explained, God designed human sexuality with NFP as a built in system. “In the wonder of his plan, he decided that there would be a time when the female was not fertile,” he said. It’s a proven method that works, he added, because it remains open to God’s will. 

At first, the natural method might seem daunting, but Albrecht and others in her office are committed to helping couples every step of the way. “We do two classes and then a follow up for as long as needed,” Albrecht said. Lisa Leisle said she was a bit overwhelmed, but quickly gained comfort with the method. “I know I could call Rachael (one of the instructors) right now for a cup of coffee if I had questions,” she said. “I feel very comfortable with it,” she said, adding that being on the pill required almost equal maintenance. 

Stronger marriages

The Leisles said they feel a sense of peace with their decision to practice NFP. “The best thing about it is that it keeps God in the marriage,” Lisa said. 

Deacon Donahue said NFP helps foster healthy marriages. “The divorce rate of people that practice NFP is about two percent,” he said. “That alone speaks volumes to the works of the practice.” Albrecht credits NFP for fostering greater communication between couples because they have to pay more attention to each other and the cycles of fertility, she said. 

“I call it the courtship and honeymooning stages,” Albrecht said in explaining the rhythm between a woman’s fertile and infertile times.

If a couple is trying to avoid pregnancy, they must avoid sex during certain times of the month. But this “courtship” stage provides unique opportunities, Albrecht explained. “The couple can do nice things for one another like when they were dating,” she said. Then, during the honeymoon phase, it helps to refresh the marriage, she added. Albrecht said many couples tell her they notice an increase in the amount of respect they have for one another, especially during the honeymoon phases. 

Growing in Numbers

Recently, Albrecht has noticed an increase in the number of couples signing up for NFP classes. “Mostly younger people are signing up. Some are doing it because they are required to take the class as part of the marriage prep,” she said. Several churches around the archdiocese require NFP classes as part of marriage preparation and that might soon expand to other parishes. 

In a Feb. 7 interview with the Catholic Anchor, Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz said work is underway to explore a possible program to offer NFP courses throughout the whole archdiocese as part of marriage preparation. For now, however, the numbers of those practicing NFP are still low, both locally and across the country. Nation-wide less than one percent of the population uses natural methods, according to the 2005 Family Planning study by the Guttmacher Institute. [This is the research arm of Planned Parenthood, and is a very conservative estimate. Most NFP providers estimate 3-5 percent of Catholics use NFP – Fr. Matthew Habiger]

Albrecht hopes those numbers gradually increase and said teaching the method earlier in life might help. 

Lisa Leisle agrees. “I knew very little about NFP,” she said. “It’s kinda like everyone assumes you know, but where are you getting the information?”

Lisa applauded Deacon Donahue for his willingness to deliver a frank and honest homily. “We talk about abortion, we talk about the death penalty, but if we don’t talk about (NFP) then how are people going to know,” she asked. 

“I admire Deacon Ken for putting it out there.” 

(This article first appeared in the Catholic Anchor, 7 March 08.