Humanae Vitae 45 Years Later: Part IV

Part 4: Natural Family Planning…a loving response

Bob & Gerri Laird

This week marks national NFP Awareness Week as well as the 45th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Part 4 of this series explores Natural Family Planning.

What is the role of Natural Family Planning (NFP) with regard to HV?

Humanae Vitae encourages married couples to understand when they are fertile and infertile.

“If, then, there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions, for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only, and in this way to regulate birth without offending the moral principles which have been recalled earlier.”[1]

Blessed John Paul II reiterated the importance of NFP and made it an apostolate, “a tool for all to use on the path to holiness.”[2]

“The necessary conditions (for marriage) also include knowledge of the bodily aspect and the body’s rhythms of fertility.  Accordingly, every effort must be made to render such knowledge accessible to all married people and also to young adults before marriage, through clear, timely and serious instruction and education given by married couples, doctors, and experts.”[3]

NFP is good because it does not treat a person as a thing or machine by altering a major, healthy, functioning part of the body.

Why NFP but not contraception? What is the difference?

Contraception alters a major, healthy, functioning part of the body, causing the reproductive system to malfunction, temporarily or permanently. On the other hand, NFP reveals externally what is occurring within a woman’s reproductive system internally. NFP is knowledge; it helps to read the language of the sexual powers and does not interfere with a couple’s fertility. Spouses do not change their bodies; rather, they change their behavior and choose to refrain from sexual intimacy during the fertile days when postponing a pregnancy. NFP does not control fertility; it enables a couple to control their behavior and thus grow in the virtue of self-control.

The reason NFP is moral and contraception is not – when they both have the same ends – can be difficult to see. But only with NFP are a husband and wife able to give a complete self-gift to the other. Every time they have relations, they give themselves completely as they are at that moment according to God’s design. Controlling one’s natural desires and sacrificing them for the sake of the spouse or family is a noble act. But engaging in the marital act and thwarting the natural design of such intimacy to serve one’s own purpose is selfish, and thus is a completely different act.

It is difficult for a married couple to act responsibly if they are unaware of the truth.  Many couples are unaware that the wife is temporarily, or permanently, infertile until they learn how to read their fertility signs through NFP. How can they make decisions about having a child if they have no knowledge of whether or not the wife is fertile and ovulating regularly?  Furthermore, it is a fallacy to think that NFP is only used to avoid pregnancy; rather, there are numerous couples whose understanding of NFP led them to a greater openness to children, and thus to greater generosity in other aspects of their lives as well.

But does NFP work?

NFP is knowledge.  When properly taught and understood, NFP reveals externally what is occurring within a woman’s reproductive system internally.  Charting the signs that occur throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle often unveils problems that need to be addressed in order for her body to function properly.  NFP is definitely working because it is alerting a woman that her system is not operating correctly.  It is the body that isn’t working properly; not the NFP.

There is nothing more frustrating than confused fertility signs.  NFP teachers need to be available to assist women/couples who are experiencing difficulties in reading and/or interpreting their signs, and women/couples should feel free to seek their advice and expertise beyond the completion of the course.

With proper education and the availability of NFP teachers for follow-up, NFP does work; it reveals whether or not a woman’s reproductive system is functioning properly.  But it is up to each woman (and her spouse) to follow this knowledge with actions that will improve her health. NFP is much more than just biology and physiology.  The knowledge of NFP is incomplete if it is not accompanied by a proper understanding of what it means to be a human person and how to act in accordance with our nature as human persons.

Marriage is about love.  Love is a decision – giving for the good of the other.  As images of God, we are called to reflect His love within marriage as well.  This means dying to self.  Each spouse must choose to give himself/herself as a permanent gift to the other.  This choice to become a self-gift involves knowledge of the value and dignity of the spouse.  Furthermore, man and woman are created so that this intimate physical gift of love can be life-giving.[4]

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In Part 5: This series of articles on Humanae Vitae concludes with a gripping story of an American cardinal and the persecution that he endured throughout his priesthood for being the only Baltimore priest out of 55 to support Paul VI’s encyclical within a few days after it was published in 1968.


[1]Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae [On Human Life], #16.

[2]Revs. Richard M. Hogan and John M. LeVoir, Covenant of Love, 1985, 260.

[3]Blessed John Paul II, Familiaris consortio [The Apostolic Exhortation on the Family in the Modern World], Article 33, 1981.

[4]Rev. Richard M. Hogan, The Human Body…a sign of dignity and a gift (The Couple to Couple League International, 2005).