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.
I have eighteen aunts and uncles. Yep, that’s right… eighteen. My mom is from a family of 12 children and my dad is from a family of 8. I’m from a large family.
It’s funny about large families. When you tell people that you are from a large family they 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 Catholics have been led to believe that 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 my mom and dad how many children to have.”
A married couple has the right to discern how many children God is calling them to have. As a document in the Church teaches,
“The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgement 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, the comedian I mentioned earlier, wrote a book called “Dad Is Fat” describing his experience of being a husband and a father of five. He 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. This goes for people without children. We are close with a couple who has struggled with infertility for years, and I have witnessed strangers asking how long they’d been married immediately followed by “Why don’t you have any children?” Total disregard for what they might be going through. Why is this? 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. God’s will determines how many children a couple should have.
But if that is the case, why does the Church have such explicit teachings on family planning? Because, 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. What makes marriage, marriage, and not a “life-partnership”, is its openness to life. Procreation, that is, cooperating with God in making life, is one of the purposes of marriage. God put married couples on this world to “be fruitful and multiply.” And he made the male and female body perfect in achieving the gift of new life. In other words, God designed the male and female body with the ability to produce 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 of determining 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.”
It should be clearly stated, that “NFP is not guess-work.” It is 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.” it is 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.
You see, my purpose in this homily is to share with you the benefits of Natural Family Planning. But I am not stupid, nor unaware, either. NFP is not a walk in the park nor is it without its challenges. Let me say something about these challenges before returning to the benefits. Not the least of these challenges is that the couple is most ready for relations when the woman is at the peak of her fertility. Furthermore, NFP requires constant monitoring, vigilance and self-control. There is also real work in learning a couple’s fertility cycle that takes time. And, if the fertility cycle is irregular or is affected by medical conditions then it takes months of work to determine the issues involved. Because of the time it takes to learn a cycle or to predict the physical issues, there can be an uncertainty about avoiding a pregnancy. This uncertainty can lead to fear or anxiety about an unexpected pregnancy. 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 the other children ready? Is our house big enough? Are we emotionally ready to bring a new life into this world? In other words, this communication causes the couple to regularly 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. Gaffagan observed,
“Think about it this way: a woman can grow a baby insider her body. Then a woman can deliver the baby through her body. Then, by some miracle, a woman can feed the baby with her body. When you compare that to the male’s contribution to life, it’s kind of embarrassing, really.”
But that is a negative observation about the man. NFP actually protects the man from being relegated to a momentary role. And NFP does not treat the man as if he is unable to control his sexual desires. Rather, 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 non-sexual ways to be intimate. This means that a relationship is forced to focus on mental and emotional intimacy, and keep from limiting intimacy to a physical action.
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. Did you know that some of the common side effects of artificial contraceptives are: nausea, headaches, weight gain, mood changes and not to mention a decreased libido. 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? Remember, a woman’s body can “grow a baby, deliver a baby and feed a baby” – why would we want to alter such an amazing 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.
So why am I talking about this today? Today’s Gospel is about the Good Shepherd. If I want to be a good shepherd then I need to share with you those truths that will protect you and your family from harm. Natural Family Planning is one of those truths. I want to encourage you to study it. If you are using NFP, I want to encourage you to persevere in spite of its challenges. Never forget, the sacrifices involved in planning your family participate in Jesus’ own sacrifices for us as our Good Shepherd.