What does Responsible Parenthood, Love, Mercy, and Life have to do with Natural Family Planning?
That's because the practice of NFP can help husband and wife
open the heart of their marriage to all the gifts that God wishes to provide.
Because the natural methods of family planning respect God's design for married love!
Responsible Parenthood, Marital Love,
and Natural Family Planning
Married love is the most deeply personal union found among men and women (see Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], no. 1643). Married love "involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter—appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of the will" (Familiaris consortio [FC], no. 13). The marital union calls husband and wife to become one flesh, one heart and one soul (see FC, no. 13). It therefore "demands indissolubility and faithfulness in … mutual giving; and it is open to fertility" (FC, no. 13).
Married love is "caught up into divine love" which enriches the couple's relationship with grace (GS, no. 48). Marriage is for the good of husband and wife, the creation of new people, and the forming of the family. It therefore is good for society. Marriage bestows a unique dignity on husband and wife that contributes to their mutual salvation (see Gaudium et spes [GS], no. 48). Marriage is a vocation, a real calling from God to form a communion of persons, the one-flesh union spoken of in Genesis and reaffirmed by Jesus (see Gen 2:24; see also Matt 19:6). In fact, the Church teaches that when they marry, husband and wife receive a "kind of consecration in the duties and dignity of their state" (GS, no. 48). In other words, God prepares spouses to faithfully live their sacred union and become parents who will love and nurture their children.
What does NFP have to do with married love?
The methods of NFP are a support for married love. They are good tools for married couples to help them live in harmony with God's divine plan for human sexuality, marriage, conjugal love, and responsible parenthood. Let's take a closer look at responsible parenthood.
"Responsible parenthood" does not exclusively mean "avoiding pregnancy." Avoiding pregnancy, in the proper context, can be part of responsible parenthood. In itself, however, avoiding pregnancy in marriage can also be a sign of irresponsibility since it may lack generosity. In light of Catholic faith, responsible parenthood has a much wider meaning than avoiding or planning pregnancy. It relates to how God created men, women, human sexuality, and marriage.
Responsible parenthood is, first, a husband and wife's conscious acceptance of marriage as created by God (see Codex Iuris Canonici [CIC], Canon 1055 §1). This takes in the marital relationship (including the sexual act) as "ordered ... toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children" (CIC, c. 1055 §1). Responsible parenthood includes the just and prayerful decision-making exercised by spouses in light of this beautiful design of God, recognizing that God wants the best for husband and wife.
Responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife understand God's design for marriage—that it is love-giving (unitive) and life-giving (procreative). Spouses ought to be well-formed in understanding Church teaching and reflect upon their responsibilities toward each other, children already born, and the wider society when deciding when to attempt to conceive or not (see Humanae vitae [HV], no. 10).
Authentic responsible parenthood, therefore, only makes sense in light of the nature of married love as willed by God. That love is "total," a "very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything … not thinking solely of their own convenience" (HV, no. 9). This marital friendship means that spouses love each other not because they will get something from each other, but just because of who they are. This kind of generous, selfless love "leads the spouses to a free and mutual gift of themselves" to each other (GS, no. 49). It is precisely this gift of self which must be received in its wholeness—fertility included. In God's plan, the fertility of the couple is part of their gift of self to each other. To withhold one's fertility in marriage is like saying, "I accept everything about you except your hands—please keep them off of." Sounds like an extreme example? Well, that's what spouses are saying through their body language when using contraceptive barriers or chemicals! It's saying, "I will give you my whole self–except for this." Using contraception harms the spousal union as well as the procreative good that is part of God's will for their marriage. If spouses want their marriage to grow, they will have to strive to love rightly. Inviting the Lord God into their marital love and honoring his design is foundational for a happy marriage.
Responsible Parenthood, Mercy,
and Natural Family Planning
Mercy is love as expressed in an imperfect world. It helps men and women see and cherish each other—gifts and weaknesses included! It calls forth patience and bestows forgiveness. Mercy is a blessing. So, how does practicing a method of NFP encourage spousal mercy?
NFP requires effort since husband and wife must live their sexuality in a way that respects the gift of their combined fertility. Through the use of periodic sexual abstinence (the NFP means to postpone pregnancy), husband and wife practice individual and couple self-discipline for the good of each other and for their family. This can be difficult; it may quickly reveal their weaknesses and may even result in discord. Ideally, husband and wife should discuss with each other why they may be attempting to postpone a pregnancy and also any underlying issues that make periodic sexual abstinence difficult, (e.g., family stress, loneliness, emotional immaturity, etc.). They can discover whether their reasons are in line with what God wants for their marriage. This will need honesty and lots of "give and take." In the end, NFP always requires sacrifice and forgiveness. If lived well, this honest struggle can deepen a couple's spousal relationship, as the demands of love help them to rise above their own desires.
Marital love puts the well-being of the beloved before personal desires. Pope Francis explains that marital love is a powerful love that is "infused by the Holy Spirit," and "a reflection of the unbroken covenant between Christ and humanity that culminated in his self-sacrifice on the cross" (Amoris laetitia, no. 120). God himself, through the power of the Holy Spirit, "gives a new heart and renders man and woman capable of loving one another as Christ loved us" (FC, no. 13). It follows then that the meaning of marital love is intimately tied to the concept of self-gift, which also hearkens back to men and women being created in God's image: "This likeness…reveals" that no one "can fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself" (GS, no. 24). To be a gift to another person requires self-sacrifice, putting the other person's needs before one's own. It means that spouses live true charity, grounded in generosity and regard for the well-being of the other person.
When husband and wife work with God and his design, they will honor the power to unite in a holistic and procreative way and be enabled to maintain the "integrity of the powers of life and love" placed in them by the Lord God (CCC, no. 2338). They will ensure the unity of their persons and marriage, thus living chastely (see CCC, no. 2338). In addition, through the use of periodic sexual abstinence, spouses will be able to "experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception," thereby acknowledging that they are "not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator" (HV, no. 13).
Responsible Parenthood, Life,
and Natural Family Planning
How does NFP use in marriage support life?
The methods of NFP respect God's design for married love. They do nothing to oppose God's gift of human fertility. NFP education teaches husband and wife to value their fertility as their gift from God. NFP teaches husband and wife to prayerfully discern when to attempt to conceive a new baby or not. Each NFP method helps couples understand their "fertile window." This is the time of fertility which includes the wife's ovulation (when her ovary releases an egg, or ovum) and the number of days that her husband's sperm can live in her body when fertile. No other method of family planning does that; NFP methods therefore clearly value procreation!
The methods of NFP can be used both to achieve and avoid a pregnancy. As St. John Paul II said, they are a "valuable help to responsible parenthood" (see Evangelium vitae [EV], no. 88). That's because NFP education teaches husband and wife to consider each other and the child who may come from their sexual union, not merely their individual desires in the moment. NFP methods help couples to recognize and respect each other and their future children "in their own right" (EV, no. 88). Through the practice of NFP, couples are encouraged to make decisions about the size of their families "guided by the ideal of the sincere gift of self" (EV, no. 88).
When we consider that marriage and conjugal love are "by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children" (GS, no. 50), we can more easily see the value of NFP methods. Husband and wife can participate in a lifestyle that reminds them that they are "cooperators with the love of God the Creator, and are, so to speak, the interpreters of that love" (GS, no. 50). When lived well, the methods of NFP can assist married couples to "fulfill their task with human and Christian responsibility, and, with docile reverence toward God," make their family planning "decisions by common counsel and effort" (GS, no. 50).
Natural Family Planning
Opening the Heart of Marriage
The Church teaches that in marriage, "Christian spouses have a special sacrament by which they are fortified and receive a kind of consecration in the duties and dignity of their state" (GS, no. 48). Through the practice of the methods of Natural Family Planning, married couples can integrate God's design for life and love in their daily lives. At times it won't be easy, since sacrifice and honest communication will have to happen. If couples persevere, the benefits are well worth the effort! Husband and wife will see their love grow and deepen. Their hearts, and the heart of their marriage, will be open to all good gifts that the Lord God wishes to give them!
The above text is also published in an eight panel brochure. It is produced by the NFP Program, Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and is sold through the USCCB's Respect Life Catalog. Ask for publication no. 1626. To order, write to firstname.lastname@example.org or in the U.S.A. call, 1-866-582-0943. Questions? Contact us: email@example.com; 1-202-541-3240.
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