When Pope Francis was returning from South Korea, he was interviewed en route. The subject was the Islamic attack on Christians in Iraq and Syria, and he was asked point blank, “What can be done?” Pope Francis replied that it would be legitimate to use force to stop the unjust aggression of those who are committing the rampant murders of Christians and other minorities in Iraq.
More recently, on September 10th, Cardinal Francis George blasted the Obama administration and allies of the pro-sodomy movement for forcing a “public creed” on Americans, compelling all to accept “gay marriage” and other “sexual anomalies.” Again, what can be done? I have previously blogged (e.g., 8/17/2014) on the direct relationship between accepting marital contraception including marital heterosexual sodomy and the consequent acceptance of homosexual sodomy parading as “marriage.” Unfortunately, the record of the last 46 years does not reveal great leadership by our bishops and Cardinals in support of Humanae Vitae and providing understandable theology and practical help. In fact, I can testify to the exclusion I experienced for many years by priests who did not accept Humanae Vitae and/or my efforts to teach natural family planning in the context of Catholic doctrine.
The Pope and the entire Church are faced with a similar problem with the number of Catholics who have married validly, then divorced, then remarried in a civil ceremony, and now would like to receive Holy Communion without the repentance of living as brother and sister. The question is overwhelmingly obvious: “What can be done?” Among the answers that have been offered is the concept of better preparation for marriage.
Well, yes. But what does that mean? For more than 40 years we have had an army of services to help couples have better marriages, but the Catholic divorce rate remains very close to the secular rate of one in every two marriages. So it seems that something more than communication skills and money management is needed, important as those are.
The one group that does better than the average marriage-wise is that small group of couples who practice natural family planning. This has long been known, and that’s undoubtedly why the US Bishops’ Committee on Pastoral Research and Practices urged, back in 1989, that every engaged couple be required to participate in a full course on natural family planning, not just an hour or two NFP presentation in a weekend pre-Cana conference.
That raises a further question: is it sufficient to learn just about fertility awareness? Or should NFP instruction prior to marriage be seen as an unrepeatable opportunity to evangelize engaged couples? I stress unrepeatable because preparation for marriage may be the only time a parish priest will ever be in a one-and-one-couple situation in which he can talk frankly about the Lord Jesus and discipleship and salvation. Too many of his engaged couples are not active in parish life or even in Church every Sunday. To repeat, this may be his only opportunity to evangelize them on a personal basis.
In our organization, Natural Family Planning International, we see marriage preparation as that unique opportunity. We put this conviction into practice right in the first pages of our user’s manual, Natural Family Planning: The Complete Approach. The three-page Introduction is titled “Where Faith and Science Meet.” It’s next-to-last paragraph sums it this way: “The time has come to return to the biblically based faith that sexual intercourse is intended by God to be exclusively a marriage act, and that within marriage it ought to be a renewal of the self-giving love and commitment of the couple’s original marriage covenant. For many, this realization of the meaning of the marriage act has been a life-changing experience.”
Chapter 1 is an example of the New Evangelization, and by that I mean the effort to help Catholics understand that the teachings of the Church, including its challenging moral teachings, are ultimately the teachings of the Lord Jesus. A short section titled “Why should I believe what the Catholic Church teaches?” reminds the reader that Christ at the Last Supper promised that the Holy Spirit would continue to guide the Church in its teaching. We use the example of the Nicene Creed that Mass-attending Catholics recite every Sunday, implicitly believing that the bishops at Nicea got it right because they were led by the Holy Spirit. Our treatment is brief, but it opens the door for the parish priest or deacon to elaborate on this and to teach what it means to believe that Jesus keeps his promises.
A section titled “The Bible and Church teaching on contraception” briefly treats of the Sin of Onan, other sexual sins, the Theology of the Body, and the covenant theology of sexuality. We also include the brief but important teaching of Pope Benedict XVI about the importance of the heart, not just the intellect, in following Jesus. This section also conveys Catholic teaching about specific immoralities such as masturbation and marital sodomy. These things are nobody’s favorite subjects, but they need to be taught because we know that some or many engaged and married couples engage in these behaviors, sometimes without ever knowing they are wrong because they were never taught these specifics.
Chapter 7 is written by user couples ranging from a woman who was a truth-seeking atheist when she first stumbled upon NFP and the covenant theology, a man who used “NFP” wrongly, a woman who learned and practiced ecological breastfeeding, another man who found us through my theology book that he found “painful” to read because it led him to the truth which he had not been practicing, and a wife who, with her husband, was gradually led into the Catholic Church through ecological breastfeeding and the NFPI form of NFP and theology.
The last chapter of the manual opens with two short paragraphs encouraging chastity and noting that the ultimate purpose of human relationships is to help the other person on the path to heaven.
The point is obvious. In this manual, parish priests and deacons have texts that provide an easy way to evangelize their engaged couples on these sensitive matters. They have a theology that works with couples with open hearts.
Every priest and deacon doing marriage preparation ought to have a copy of Natural Family Planning: The Complete Approach on his desk, and I recommend the spiral-bound edition because it lies flat and is thus easier for sharing with couples. I think they would do well to insist that their couples obtain a copy themselves, whether in print or as a freewill-offering download.
The Lord Jesus teaches us, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:28-30). God NEVER teaches that love is easy. The Lord tells us clearly that being a disciple involves being yoked to Jesus, but compared to the other difficulties of life and the self-inflicted burdens of sin, the yoke of discipleship is easy and the burden is light. We do ourselves and others no favor by teaching them that following Catholic moral teaching is easy. For very good reason the Lord Jesus gave us the sacraments and his mother urges us to pray the rosary. For all of these reasons, chaste NFP needs to be taught in the context of Christian discipleship.
To return to the opening paragraph, in the current war against basic Christian morality, it is surely Christian prudence to require engaged couples to participate in the right kind of NFP course as a normal part of preparation for lifelong marriage. In most localities, the easiest way to do this is to have the couples take the NFPI Home Study Course via email. They will be amazed at how much they learn. On the other hand, fertility-awareness-only courses are not helpful for the evangelization task at hand. For more on the right kind of NFP course, see http://nfpandmore.org/the_right_kind_of_NFP_CW.pdf
John F Kippley, September 20, 2014
At the NFPI website, www.nfpandmore.org , you can find registration for the Home Study Course, Sheila’s weekly blog, and Your Right To Know what’s involved in NFP education.