The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: February 13, 2004
Despite poor 'marketing,' church got it right with holistic birth control
By JIM TERNIER and MARIE-LOUISE TERNIER-GOMMERS
G.K. Chesterton once said, Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried. We venture to paraphrase this with regard to Natural Family Planning: NFP has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried. Twenty-four years of married life parallels our years of being NFP users and teachers. We are committed to farming without chemicals, so it was logical to choose a family planning method without chemicals. Our three children were very planned and are now young adults. Weve seen and heard a lot in those years, and the recent coverage in the Catholic press on the churchs teaching on family planning and on NFP compels us to speak up.
When we joined Serena Saskatchewan (the Canadian organization teaching Natural Family Planning) as a young Catholic couple, idealistic and full of energy, we entered a true community of friends. In those years Serena enjoyed the volunteer work of nearly 50 teacher-couples across this province. Many couples were Catholic but certainly not all. In fact, Serena was launched in Saskatchewan by a Quaker medical doctor and her husband who appreciated the healthy alternative NFP offered and wanted to help pass on this good news. Catholic and non-Catholic couples were attracted to NFP for many reasons, not least of which was the absence of side effects. A natural method of family planning, developed with the best medical and scientific knowledge about the combined fertility of the couple, fitted well with those of us who adopted a simple and wholesome lifestyle. It even appealed to those feminists who wanted to be in charge of their own fertility without pills or devices that jeopardized their health physically and otherwise. NFP was the method of choice for those among us who were advocates of social justice, with those of us who didnt want to be controlled by the medical profession and their technological solutions and for Catholic couples who strove to live a fruitful and mature marriage in accordance with church teaching. Some of us fitted in all these categories.
Honest and open community
We were a great bunch, leaning to the left of center on many issues and truly appreciating the freedom from technology and from side effects that NFP afforded. Quaker, Bahai, Lutheran and Catholic, even liberal and conservative, NFP was our great unifier. We gave couple-to-couple instruction on the sympto-thermal method of NFP, thus empowering and equipping couples to take charge of their sexual activity based on the natural fertility cycle and on their readiness to have children. The reasons for couples choosing NFP expanded, and eventually started to include couples who had trouble conceiving and who simply lacked a bit of knowledge about optimum times of combined fertility provided no medical problems stood in the way.
We discovered that NFP couples were surprisingly open to sharing their sexual joys and challenges. We were part of a community that was honest and open and possessed a great sense of humor. We simply have never found this anywhere else.
When we spoke on family planning to marriage preparation courses, wed ask couples what they hoped for in their relationship: good communication, mutual respect, honoring each others differences and seasons, treating one another as equals, fostering in the other a healthy self-confidence and self-esteem and a deep faith in one anothers ability to grow into his/her fullest human potential. In our 24 years of marriage, we have found that using NFP has enhanced all these qualities in our relationship. In turn, these relational and personal skills have helped us weather marital storms we experienced over time. It is true that these relational skills and qualities are indeed a requirement for successful use of NFP and therefore make this method not suited to all couples. If we had to choose a family planning method all over again, we would choose NFP. Our experience has affirmed that the churchs intuition about family planning is right on the money.
But what has happened? What has happened to NFP users and to the public debate on the churchs teaching on family planning? By and large, todays liberal Catholics embrace the churchs teaching on social justice, on the environment and on its antiwar position but are nowhere to be found in natural family planning circles and, for the most part, place themselves in opposition to the churchs teachings on sexual matters. Most of todays conservative Catholics wont be caught dead in antiwar rallies, in protesting the death penalty or in environmental lobbying, conveniently ignoring the churchs position on these matters. Instead they tout the churchs teaching on family planning as a litmus test of loyalty to Rome but are divorced from the social and environmental teaching of that same church in Rome. In some provinces, Serena has lost its ecumenical character, becoming instead a fortress for Catholic loyalists.
There is an unhealthy split occurring in the Catholic mind, or maybe it has always been there. Are we all picking those teachings we agree with and ignoring those that demand too much from us? Does a majority acceptance or rejection now determine truth? If this is the case, then most Catholics in the Western world have proven by their mass rejection that the churchs social and environmental teachings are also wrong, for we havent shown a clear commitment or willingness to significantly reduce the share we use of the earths resources.
When it comes to transmitting Catholic teaching on sexual matters and promoting the use of NFP, the church has failed and continues to fail miserably. Another pamphlet by the U.S. bishops conference is not going to change this. This failing could well be due, to a great extent, to its celibate male leadership and its patriarchal, top-down approach to disseminating the churchs wisdom. Because the church has a mixed record on teachings regarding human sexuality, pronouncements by its leaders on this hot issue are rightly viewed with suspicion. So it is a miracle that the churchs intuition on family planning is a healthy and wholesome one, even though no lived experience of marriage has been instrumental in formulating that teaching.
By its approval of NFP, the church indirectly proclaims and affirms that a womans fertility is nobodys medical problem to fix, but, rather, that every womans sexuality includes her fertility and this truth deserves to be respected both by the woman and her spouse. NFP teaches a man that there is virtue in sexual discipline within a relationship of love. Every woman should also have the freedom to choose to live in harmony with the natural cycles of her fertility and should not have to be sexually available at all times. A marriage and a culture that expect women to be sexually available all the time, without becoming pregnant, smacks of exploitation and blatant disrespect.
Not long ago in a group of friends, all Catholic couples, the conversation moved to Humanae Vitae and its mass rejection by Catholics. When my husband tried to say something positive about Humanae Vitae, it seemed as if everyone colluded against him in the silence that fell upon the group. We felt alone, and longed again for our NFP friends. Why does it have to be this way? Even in these menopausal years, we are still keen users and promoters of NFP because of the values it has helped us instill in our marriage relationship. Is there anyone in Catholic circles still willing to listen to our experience?
Besides poor marketing by a celibate male church leadership, one of the reasons NFP finds less approval here is because technology rules Western society. Maybe it is no surprise that the majority of Western Catholics have bought into the conviction that we cant live our marital sexuality without being fixed. With regard to the churchs teaching on human sexuality, and therefore on Natural Family Planning, we have thus thrown the baby out with the bath water.
Natural Family Planning has indeed not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.
Jim Ternier grows organic garden seeds on a farm near Cochin, Saskatchewan, Canada. Marie-Louise Ternier-Gommers is an adult faith educator, a writer, editor and speaker. This article also appeared in the Canadian Catholic weekly Prairie Messenger.
National Catholic Reporter, February 13, 2004
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