By Jennifer Mauro | Managing Editor

“Being co-creators with God is the crowning gift of marriage.”

So says Peg Hensler, diocesan associate director of Marriage Ministry and NFP, reflecting on this year’s Natural Planning Awareness Week, July 21-27.

“NFP enables couples to live a moral life,” Hensler said. “It gives couples every opportunity to make the right choice and live by Church teaching.”

Natural Family Planning allows couples to achieve or avoid pregnancies based on observation of the naturally occurring signs and symptoms of the fertility phases of a woman’s menstrual cycle. No drugs, devices or surgical procedures are used to aid or avoid pregnancy.

“It really is a perfect time for the Church, with so many medical advances, to meet the needs of couples who are looking for non-side-effect contraceptive methods – ones that are non-steroidal, non-hormonal,” Hensler said.

Among those advances are Natural Procreative Technology, or NaPro, a women’s health science that monitors and maintains a women’s productive and gynecological health, and the Creighton Model of Natural Family Planning, which tracks fertility during a woman’s menstrual cycle. Both can also help identify the underlying cause of infertility.

“NFP allows us to deal with health concerns, and with NaPro technology, we can get to the root cause of infertility so that we don’t have to resort to assisted reproductive technology, which is morally problematic,” Hensler said.

This point is made clear in the Holy See’s “Charter of the Rights of the Family,” which states, “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception” (Article 4). This not only includes drawing attention to the fact that abortion and contraceptives go against Church teaching, but also that respecting the dignity of a person means they must turn away from “experimental manipulation or exploitation of the human embryo.”

‘Love, Naturally’

This year’s Natural Planning Awareness Week, sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has as its theme: “Love, Naturally! Cooperating with God’s design for married love.”

“I know how hard it is in today’s culture to trust in natural methods of family planning,” Hensler said. “It takes discipline; it’s not easy. Nothing that is great in marriage is easy.”

However, Catholic couples who stumble with NFP can turn to God and redouble their efforts through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Hensler stressed. 

“We can’t look at this as all or nothing and say, ‘I’m either going to follow NPF all the time, or I’m not going to follow it at all,’” she said. “We’re pilgrims on a journey; we’re going to fail. But if you fail, you try again because when you try, it makes all the difference in your marriage.”

Contraception is a barrier to sacramental grace, she stressed, because the sexual act has a dual purpose that should never be separated – bonding as a couple and being open to conceiving a child.

Contraceptives, she said, can instead create physical and emotional borders. “When we take our eyes off Christ and become immersed in our own humanity, we fail to trust in these beautiful gifts he gives us.”

Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls all couples to be open to fertility, stating, “By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory" (1652).

Hensler acknowledges that couples want to tackle parenthood responsibly, saying couples sometimes aren’t prepared physically, psychologically, financially to have a child. That’s where Natural Family Planning comes in.

“With this natural cycle and observable symptoms [of fertility], couples have the ability to make a lot of their own determinations with regard to family planning,” she said. “However, they have to trust in God, too, and say, ‘If God should give us a child, then we’ll deal with it because we know it’s God’s gift.”

Moral Issues

Natural Family Planning is a sensitive and emotional subject, Hensler acknowledged, especially for couples who want children and cannot conceive or for those who want to start a family later in life when a person’s fertility rate has decreased. It’s important, she said, for couples to think of God’s plan for their lives and not turn to alternative methods that go against Church teaching, such as in vitro fertilization.

“Having a child is not a fundamental right – children are a pure gift from God,” she said. “When we take the child out of the whole process of generating life out of love, it becomes a commodity. What’s best for the child is no longer the priority, and instead, it’s what’s best for the couple – or even individual. It becomes a consumer mentality. It’s no longer of that mentality that children are a gift.

“When we start thinking we have a right to a child, that’s when we start to believe we have all the answers, and we’re not trusting in God to guide us,” she said.

The subject, she stressed, is not easy.

“There are many wonderful Catholic parents who have children who were conceived by in vitro. They are every bit as loved by God. They are exactly the same in God’s eyes. But the ways we went about it are not the same, and we can’t pretend that it is,” Hensler said, referring to the Catechism.

It states, “Spouses to whom God has not granted children can nevertheless have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms. Their marriage can radiate a fruitfulness of charity, of hospitality and of sacrifice” (1654).

Hensler stressed the point, saying, “The fruitfulness of marriage plays itself out in many ways.”

Though Natural Planning Awareness Week is a set time meant to draw attention to the issue, Hensler stressed that there are numerous recourses to talk about NFP year-round. The Diocese of Trenton has a resource book on its website at https://dioceseoftrenton.org/nfp-awareness, which has information for parishes, couples and families. It also calls for an age-appropriate NFP curriculum. “It can’t be that the first time you hear about this issue is when you prepare for Catholic marriage,” Hensler said.

In addition to the diocesan material, resources such as posters, liturgy and prayers, couples’ stories and Church teachings can be found on the USCCB website, usccb.org.

“Try these natural methods,” Hensler said. “Go and take a class. As you start to open yourself to God, you start becoming much more aware of what he is calling you to do.”