by Theresa Notare
March 16, 2001
I am often asked "Why don't we hear about Natural Family Planning (NFP) from the pulpit?" The question is practical. Most Catholics agree that husbands and wives need to responsibly plan their families, but few understand why the Church prohibits contraception and few don't know about NFP. The pulpit may be the best means for Catholics to learn what the Church teaches and why.
Why don't priests preach on NFP? The top three reasons priests give me are: 1) they must preach on the daily Mass readings; 2) NFP is an awkward topic for a sermon in a mixed congregation; and 3) their comfort level may not extend that far. This third point can take in diverse factors. They may be unfamiliar with the science of NFP. They may have done little serious reading on the theology which supports the use of NFP. They may have no personal friendships with couples who practice NFP or have an innate "shyness" about sexual matters. I've never met a priest who has rejected the truth of the teachings. I have met some priests who "question" the teachings, but their questions are prompted mostly by a lack of information, not a rejection of the faith.
One priest explained this silence very well. "It's not some conscious clerical plot of silence on the topic," he said. "Priests are practical. They like to speak on issues they know a lot about or have personal experience with. Unless they study, pray, reflect on this issue, and have NFP couples witness to them, they won't get it. They are men; they don't have fertility cycles and aren't married to someone who does. They need help."
What to do? Education. Education. Education. Each of the objections listed above can be overcome by providing clergy with solid information on NFP. The diocesan NFP office is the logical place to start. A diocesan NFP coordinator can plan and implement clergy education. If a diocese does not have a NFP coordinator, interested and informed people can plan activities together and solicit the support of a pastor in a large parish.
Education can take many forms. Direct mailings of brochures or audio tapes can be sent to priests. Full or half-day educational events can be planned. A series of brief lectures can be offered throughout a year. Planned visits to parishes can be scheduled for more candid, one-on-one conversation. Informal dinners should not be overlooked. They can provide a casual atmosphere for significant discussion. Whatever the format, the content of NFP education must address all aspects of the issue: theological/pastoral, scientific/behavioral, and physical/emotional. First impressions are also critical. Keep in mind that the tone of NFP education should be positive. Say, "God designed human fertility wonderfully so that men and women can join Him in planning their families." Once the good idea has been said, then bring up the negative-- "Contraceptive use assaults God's plan for us." NFP education always must be set within the greater context of the Church's vision of the human person, sexuality, conjugal love and responsible parenthood. When God's design for life and love is presented in all its beauty, it is seen as desirable. When Catholics embrace God's will, they will reject contraception (and other sexually related ills), out of love and understanding.
The science of NFP must be presented with all its strengths and weaknesses, but beginning with NFP's strengths is essential. Few couples understand their combined fertility. NFP provides that education. Research confirms that the Sympto-Thermal and Ovulation methods of NFP are almost 97% effective for avoiding pregnancy. Couples need to know this is reliable research. On the negative side, many couples may find abstinence during the fertile period difficult. NFP teachers need to be sensitive to this. Couples also need to know that NFP "user effectiveness" rates drop to a range from 80%-90%. This wider range reflects the importance of couple behavior as well as the quality of teaching they received. NFP promoters can't do much about a couple's behavior, but improving diocesan NFP services and strengthening the training of NFP teachers is within our reach. All of this can be explained to priests.
Priests also need accurate information on the actions, side-effects and risks of contraceptives. Probably few priests know how these devices and chemicals work and have little understanding of the abortifacient actions of hormonal "contraceptives." Priests need to learn and reflect on how contraceptives negatively affect the physical, emotional and spiritual health of a couple. Related social issues need to be studied like the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases and rates of unintended pregnancies (which often result in abortion). Priests need to see that counseling the individual couple on sexual issues has a public dimension.
When ongoing education on NFP and related issues is offered for priests, the topic will no longer be unpreachable. An informed priest will find many opportunities to preach on NFP in the day's readings. For example, if the readings speak of "God's Covenant with the Israelites," he can apply that to the marital covenant whereby a man and a woman become one flesh. It would then be logical to explain why introducing artificial contraception is an affront to that covenant. If scripture highlights the problem of worshiping idols, an NFP-educated priest can speak of the false sexual idols which our society promotes. He can preach about the beauty of human sexuality as part of God's plan to give us real freedom and happiness. When a priest is a friend of an NFP couple, he can share their positive experiences with his congregation. A confident priest knows the ways to provide just enough detail to move his parishioners to listen and to get them to open their hearts.
One last word--strong NFP educational outreach to priests should include information on where couples can go to learn the methods of NFP. Scheduled classes or home study programs should be made available to all engaged and married couples. NFP education and services go hand in hand. When all these components work together our priests will be well equipped to help Catholic couples follow God's design for life and love.
Theresa Notare is the Special Assistant of the Diocesan Development Program for NFP, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.