I have eighteen aunts and uncles. Yep, I’m from a large family. When you tell people that you are from a large family many people almost automatically assume you are Catholic. Jim Gaffagan, a famous Catholic comedian, has a skit called “Six-kids, Catholic.” He says, “There would always be a beat after I said “Six kids,” for the person to silently speculate about the size of our family; then I would give the explanation, “Catholic.”
This perceived assumption by society, that Catholics have large families, is both positive and negative. It is positive because, as the Catechism says, the Church sees, “in large families a sign of God’s blessings and the parent’s generosity.” But it can also be negative because many think that Church has some hidden ‘quota’ for the number of children they must have. There is no quota. As Gaffagan also observed, “It wasn’t like the pope told me how many children to have.” A married couple has the right to discern how many children God is calling them to have. As the Church teaches, “The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God.”
Let’s be clear…God HIMSELF determines the size of a family. The spouses have the responsibility of discerning how many children God is asking them to have. And yet, in modern society, people are often quite rude when it comes to commenting on the size of a family. Gaffagan, in a book called “Dad Is Fat” captured this reality saying, “People would never even ask a friend, let alone a stranger, when they plan to get their hair done, for fear of offending, yet for some reason the “How many children are you going to have” question is fair game… I don’t mean to get up on a diaper box, but individual liberties are all-important in this country… except when it comes to the number of kids you have or don’t have.”
There is no quota of children for a Catholic family. It is God’s WILL that determines how many children a couple should have.
This is why the Church has such clear teachings on family planning. Just as the size of a family is determined by God’s will for a married couple, so too the gift of children must also follow God’s design for married love. God blessed married couples with the responsibility to “be fruitful and multiply.” And he designed the male and female body perfect in achieving the gift of new life. For this reason the choice of having or postponing children must also respect God’s design for the human body. This is why artificial contraceptives are not permissible: they do not respect God’s design for marital relations.
Methods of Natural Family Planning are the only morally permissible techniques to limit the size of one’s family. NFP is based on a couple’s self-observation and use of fertile or infertile periods to achieve or to avoid a pregnancy. As the U.S. bishops state, it is “unique among methods of family planning because it enables its users to work with the body rather than against it. Fertility is viewed as a gift and a reality to live, not a problem to be solved.”
Contemporary society has a hard time accepting this teaching of Jesus and his Church and many stand in “hard of face and obstinate of heart” to it, as our first reading prophesied. Furthermore, current medical science widely prescribes medical and surgical contraceptives and sees the Church’s teaching as out of date. And, like Jesus in today’s Gospel, current society often times “takes offense” at this teaching. But it must be clearly stated: Natural Family Planning is not guess-work. It is, in fact, scientifically tested and based on sound medical and biological facts of the human body. It is based on an in-depth study and understanding of a woman’s fertility cycle and temperature signals. But it also respects the fact that fertility is not isolated as a “woman’s issue” but a couple’s issue. Fertility is affected by the combined relationship of husband and wife and is as much psychological and emotional as it is biological.
NFP is not some kind of Neanderthal approach to family planning that can’t respond to medical challenges or fertility issues. When used with consistency it is as effective at postponing pregnancy as the most effective chemical contraceptives – 97-98% effective. But unlike chemical contraceptives it can aid in achieving pregnancy as well. Because of its scientific foundation, NFP can adjust for irregular cycles, it can aid in pin-pointing fertility, it can respond to medical challenges within fertility and it can even help diagnose illnesses affecting fertility. The science of NFP also includes technology, such as the Ovulation Predictor Kit, that can indicate when ovulation will occur.
My purpose in this homily is to share with you the benefits of Natural Family Planning. Yet I don’t want to paint a false picture about NFP either. It is not a walk in the park nor is it without its challenges. NFP requires constant monitoring, vigilance, and self-control. There is real work in learning a couple’s fertility cycle. If a fertility cycle is irregular or is affected by medical conditions then it takes a lot of work to determine the issues involved. Finally, this entire process is learned through conversations that can be emotionally and spiritually challenging. Adapting to NFP is a process of conversion that takes faith and sacrifice. But despite its challenges Natural Family Planning is far superior to chemical or surgical contraceptives. This is indicated by the fact that couples who use NFP have a less than 4% divorce rate as opposed to the national average of 43% within the first 10 years of marriage.
Natural Family Planning is morally permissible. It respects God’s two-fold purpose for the marriage act as both a gift of love as well as openness to life. It respects the dual role of both husband and wife in planning a family. It fosters constant communication and cooperation when the couple desires sexual relations. When a couple is ready for relations they have to ask the question: Can we get pregnant? Can we afford a child? Are we ready for a new baby? Are our other children ready? Is our house big enough? Are we emotionally ready to bring a new life into this world? In other words, NFP causes the couple to regularly communicate and evaluate their life together as a family.
Natural Family planning protects woman’s dignity. It fosters the truth that fertility is not simply a ‘woman’s issue’ but a ‘couple’s issue.’ The conversation about pregnancy naturally revolves around the woman’s body. As such, the preparedness of the woman’s body, and subsequently the woman’s needs, are kept in the fore-front of the conversation. NFP ensures that fertility is the shared responsibility of a couple, not the burden of one person over another.
For that matter, NFP protects the man’s dignity as well. NFP protects the man’s role in child-bearing. It calls the man to self-control and keeps him a part of the conversation concerning the needs of the family and the needs of his spouse. NFP’s demand for conversation, awareness and vigilance keeps a husband focused on his wife and a constant part of the process.
Natural Family Planning encourages respect for, and acceptance of, the total person and the total relationship. It does not reduce family planning to a prescription, a chemical process or a medical procedure. In NFP the infertile periods become a time of shared love. And fertile periods, when avoiding a pregnancy, cause the couple to find new ways to be intimate beyond the marital act.
Finally, NFP keeps the woman’s body free from drugs the man’s body from being surgically altered. Fertility is not a disease and the ability to get pregnant is not a deformity. In a world that is increasingly discussing the effect of pesticides on tomatoes and strawberry’s why do some people think that a proper response to family planning is infusing the body with chemicals?
I have eighteen aunts and uncles. I am from a large family. Not everyone is from a large family. Nor are all married couples called to have a large family. There is no quota. The primary determining factor in deciding how many kids a couple should have is GOD’S WILL. It is up to the couple to discern how many children God is calling them to have. And just as it is God’s will that determines how many children a family should have, it is also God’s will that determines how to achieve or avoid a pregnancy. Natural Family Planning is not easy, but it respects God’s design of the total person: body, mind and soul. NFP is not easy, but it does strengthen the shared life of husband and wife through mutual communication and sacrifice.