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Archives Marriage: one flesh, given and received

July 5, 2023

By Suzanne Pietropaoli
Co-Director, Diocesan Natural Family Planning Office

Each July, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sponsors Natural Family Planning Awareness Week. And each year , the event raises questions: What exactly is NFP? How does it concern the Bishops? Why should it concern me/the rest of us?

First things first. NFP is an umbrella term for certain natural methods used to achieve or avoid pregnancy. These methods are based on observation of the  naturally occurring signs  of the fertile and infertile phases of a woman’s cycle.

This alternation of fertility and infertility  means that women are fertile only a few days in each cycle; barring illness or injury,  a man is generally fertile every day from puberty to death.

NFP methods track the changes associated with ovulation, treating each woman  and each cycle as unique. Unlike the old Rhythm method, modern NFP methods are not based on calendars and predictions of fertility, but on real time observations and guidelines that have emerged from more than 50 years of scientific  research and statistical  verification. Correct application of this data lets a woman  reliably identify the fertile/infertile  phases of her cycle.

Couples then use this information according to their family planning intention. To avoid pregnancy, they abstain from intercourse during the fertile time.  Though the number of fertile days varies from woman to woman and cycle to cycle, these make up the smallest segment of any cycle. Knowing how to identify the fertile time also helps couples achieve pregnancy when they wish to.

Since it does not involve any devices, drugs, or surgery,  NFP stands alone as a healthy, organic, highly effective (98-99%) approach to family planning. 

Husband and wife share responsibility for NFP,  a collaboration that tends to deepen their communication and their respect for one another.

Natural Family Planning is also unique because it respects God’s design for life and love: in creating us male and female in his image, God made  sexual union to be – like God’s himself –  both life-giving and love-giving.

The bishops present this truth clearly and beautifully in Married Love and the Gift of Life (USCCB 2007): “Married love is powerfully embodied in the spouses’ sexual relationship, when they most fully express what it means to become ‘one body’ (Gn 2:24) or ‘one flesh’ (Mk 10:8, MT19:6). The Church teaches that the sexual union of husband and wife is meant to express the full meaning of love, its power to bind a couple together and its openness to new life. When Scripture portrays God creating mankind ‘in his image’ (Gn 1:27), it treats the union of man and woman as joining two persons equal in dignity (‘This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,’ (Gn 2:23), and as being open to the blessing of children: ‘Be fertile and multiply,’ Gn 1:28)…Therefore, the mutual gift of fertility is an integral part of the bonding power of marital intercourse.”

It is also, the bishops affirm, an essential part of the free, total, faithful, and fruitful love that couples promise to each other at the altar on their wedding day.

For this reason, “When married couples deliberately act to suppress their fertility, sexual intercourse is no longer fully marital intercourse. It is something less powerful and intimate,  something more  ‘casual.’ Suppressing fertility by using contraceptives denies part of the inherent meaning of married sexuality and does harm to the couple’s unity. The total giving of oneself, body, and soul, to one’s beloved is no time to say: ‘I give you everything I am – except…’ The Church’s teaching is not only about observing a rule, but about preserving that total, mutual gift of two persons in all its integrity.”

This Bishops’ document acknowledges that this is a hard teaching, one that “many (if not most) couples, through no fault of their own, have never heard (or not heard in a way they could appreciate or understand).”

Yet our story, caught up in the life-giving love of God, need not end there.

The Bishops conclude with a clear and hopeful message: “Living God’s design for human sexuality in marriage can be difficult. But husbands and wives have not been left alone to live out this fundamental life challenge. If you have failed to do so in the past, do not be discouraged. God loves you and wants your ultimate happiness.”

“Loving as Christ loves is a possibility opened to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, as a free gift of God. Through prayer and the sacraments, including Reconciliation and the Eucharist, God offers us the strength to live up to this challenge. Recall the words of Christ, repeated so often by John Paul II: ‘Be not afraid!’ The Church’s teaching on marital sexuality is an invitation for men and women – an invitation to let God be God, to receive the gift of God’s love and care, and to let this gift inform and transform us, so we may share that love with each other and with the world.” (Married Love and the Gift of Life, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 20027. Copies of this document are available upon request from the Diocesan NFP Office, apietropaoli@rcdony.org or at 518-483-0459.)

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