In 1996 Pope St. John Paul II, speaking to a group of teachers of Natural Family Planning (NFP), boldly declared: “The moment has come for every parish and every structure of consultation and assistance to the family and to the defense of life to have personnel available who can teach married couples how to use the natural methods.”
Twenty-two years have passed since that speech. Meanwhile, this Wednesday we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. On this occasion we must pause and ask: How well have we implemented Pope Paul VI’s teachings, and how well have we lived up to St. John Paul II’s hopes? One article reports that according to a 2016 study by the U.S. bishops, “53 percent of dioceses spent less than $5,000 per year on NFP programs; 19 percent budgeted more than $30,000 a year for such programs. The study also found that 49 percent of NFP instructors in parish programs were unpaid volunteers.”
In the same article, a representative of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) stated that more than half of U.S. dioceses have what the article termed “strong” NFP ministries. But if 53 percent of dioceses are spending less than $5,000 – scarcely enough to cover photocopying for the year, let alone to pay trained, full-time personnel – it’s hard to see how this could be possible. Even the $30,000 that just 19% of dioceses spend isn’t enough to cover the salary of a single full-time, trained staff member.
And if dioceses, many of which have budgets in the tens of millions of dollars, aren’t committing any meaningful resources to NFP programs, how many parishes are doing so?
Furthermore, if this is the situation in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, what is it like in poorer countries, where Catholic couples are far more likely to face difficulties like abject poverty and lack of access to basic health care, even as they are bombarded by foreign-funded pro-contraception propaganda.
One 2008 study gives a bleak look into the situation in at least one African country, Uganda. After surveying NFP training by the Catholic Church in one of the most densely-Catholic regions in Uganda, the study authors concluded: “There were no budgets, supplies, registers, teaching aids, and no records of NFP clients were kept. No space for NFP clinics was provided and there was no arrangement for continuous professional education (CPE) for NFP providers. Basic knowledge about NFP e.g. the role of breastfeeding and periodic abstinence was acquired from friends. Knowledge about NFP methods was insufficient among clients to the services and in some health workers.”
In many cases, the study’s findings directly match what we at Human Life International have seen over the past four decades of international missionary work. Because of our global footprint and experience we have witnessed firsthand the dearth of NFP programs and its negative consequences. We have also seen the positive impact when NFP is preached and taught as a good for spouses and married couples are given proper formation and education, supported and nurtured and there is continuous oversight and formation of training couples and teachers.
The study authors urged the Catholic Church “to provide political commitment to NFP, invest more in and reinvigorate the teaching of NFP methods through their structures” and to provide “support supervision on NFP access and use within [Catholic] health facilities.” Though the authors were clearly pro-contraception themselves, ironically, they placed higher expectations on the Church to live up to its teachings than even many Catholics. If the Catholic Church truly believes what it says it believes, then why – they rightly asked – is the Church doing so little to help Catholics in the pews learn NFP?
We’re Losing Souls
St. John Paul II decried the fact that, due to misunderstandings and a tendency to treat NFP as a purely “functional” technique apart from the “ethical dimension,” some people had come to view NFP methods as just another form of contraception. “But this is certainly not the way they should be viewed or applied,” he said. Not only does NFP respect God’s moral law and foster growth in virtue when used according to the Church’s guidelines, but the Church always presents it as part of a broader message about the theological truth about marriage, the God-given purpose of sexuality, and generous openness to life.
Nevertheless, in its efforts to preach the truth about marriage and sexuality to Catholics, to a large extent the Church is in direct competition with the contraception industry. This vast, ubiquitous, and powerful industry, flush with cash and marketing savvy, is luring huge numbers of Catholics away from the truth about human sexuality with its deceptive, but slick message of easy, consequence-free sex. They’re in our schools, on our TV’s, in our magazines…everywhere.
And they’re winning. According to some statistics, well over 90% of self-professed Catholic women have used contraception at some point. One huge survey by Univision found that 79% of self-professed Catholics in the U.S. support contraception. Meanwhile, meaningful knowledge about NFP remains confined to a relatively tiny sub-set of faithful Catholics.
An Untenable Situation
If we truly believed that using contraception is a grave sin, as the Church teaches, then it seems self-evident that our priests and bishops would be preaching the message of Humanae Vitae from the pulpit regularly. And if we really believed that NFP is good for Catholic couples when used in accord with Church teaching, we would be pouring resources into developing sophisticated, evidence-based and faithful NFP-training materials and programs, translating them into numerous languages and implementing them in all dioceses and parishes around the world. Nor would we hesitate to invest time and money in studying the effectiveness of these programs using the best scientific and statistical techniques available.
We would be hiring highly trained NFP experts to serve in diocesan offices and parishes to provide individualized support to couples. We would be creating consistent, nationally recognized standards for training NFP teachers as well as national, easily searchable databases where couples could search for local NFP instructors. We would be advertising NFP-training resources in every parish bulletin, every week. We would be providing funding for low-income families who cannot afford the costs of NFP instruction, which in my opinion should be free. We would be holding regular and well-advertised NFP training sessions around the diocese to educate already-married couples and incorporating NFP into pre-marital preparation programs – and not just a one-hour course or weekend program.
We would be opening Catholic NFP clinics staffed with Catholic doctors and nurses. We would be hiring talented writers, designers and programmers to create attractive and user-friendly websites, apps, videos, hand-outs, booklets, advertising, and other teaching aids to make it as easy as possible for Catholics to learn about NFP. And last, and perhaps most importantly, we would be investing in new technologies and scientific research to refine our understanding of the science of fertility and to make it easier for couples to use NFP.
As St. John Paul II exhorted: “It is necessary on the one hand to be committed in the medical field to disseminating knowledge of the scientific basis for the natural methods of fertility regulation, and on the other, to promoting study and research on the nature of the biochemical and biophysical events that accompany and indicate periods of fertility, leading to an easier and more reliable exercise of responsible parenthood.”
Much NFP Training Woefully Inadequate
I don’t at all mean to overlook the many Catholic organizations and individuals who already are doing incredible work along these lines. Many of them are doing heroic work under difficult conditions: often with little or no funding or other resources. Many of the volunteers involved in NFP education heroically sacrifice enormous amounts of their time and resources, while even many paid NFP teachers work for a fraction of what they might make in the secular work force.
As the “Pope of Life” wrote in Evangelium Vitae: “The Church is grateful to those who, with personal sacrifice and often unacknowledged dedication, devote themselves to the study and spread of these methods, as well as to the promotion of education in the moral values which they presuppose.”
Nevertheless, we must be honest in taking stock of where we are. Clearly, we are leagues away from reaching St. John Paul II’s dream of having well-trained personnel available to educate Catholics in every parish.
It seems to me that there are two obstacles to fulfilling St. John Paul II’s wishes. The first is by far the most serious: the vast complacency and outright dissent against Humanae Vitae among some bishops, priests, theologians and Catholics in the pews. Many bishops and pastors invest nothing or very little in teaching Humanae Vitae and NFP. How this can be solved is another topic for another day.
The second obstacle is much subtler: it is that understandable concern among some faithful Catholics that by vigorously promoting NFP we may give the impression that we are promoting “Catholic contraception.” At times, indeed, this concern is thoroughly justified, as we discussed in last week’s column. In no way do I wish to diminish this concern. However, St. John Paul II was absolutely clear that the solution to this concern is not to hide the Church’s teaching under a bushel, and to cede the field to Planned Parenthood and their ilk, who are more than happy to fill the void.
Instead, organizations and campaigns that promote contraception and its “utilitarian” worldview, he said, “must be answered with every initiative that can support scientifically and with correct information the validity of natural methods, in accordance with the Church’s constant teaching.”
The solution is to put serious thought, effort and resources into creating programs that fully and authentically transmit the whole of Church teaching. Pope John Paul II was clear that when he urged the Church to educate couples in NFP, he didn’t just want the Church to teach a certain set of physical techniques, but rather the whole theology of marriage, of which periodic abstinence to postpone pregnancy for grave a reason forms but one part. NFP, he said, must always be “taught and presented in a suitable anthropological and ethical context.”
As I have heard from so many couples, the NFP training in most parishes is woefully inadequate, if available at all. At best, engaged couples are given an hour or two of instruction, much of which is presented by eager, but untrained volunteers tasked with the impossible: convincing many already-cohabiting and contracepting couples to follow a teaching that they view as burdensome and which they have never heard compellingly preached or explained. Often, there is only enough time to give the basic talking points, which, as I observed last week, sometimes tend only to unrealistically emphasize how “easy” NFP can be, without addressing the deeper spiritual perspective or equipping couples to sort through the inevitable challenges.
The Church’s teaching on contraception and NFP is clear. It is time now for visionary Catholic leaders to step up to the plate to find ways to fulfill St. John Paul II’s dream. The time is ripe for this effort. Increasingly, even many non-religious people are coming to view artificial contraception with suspicion. If only we were confident in proclaiming the truth taught to us by the Church, we could capture so many souls for Christ, deal a death-blow to the hedonistic, materialistic worldview of the population controllers, help strengthen marriages and families, encourage openness to life, and challenge couples to mutually pursue virtue.