Refilling the Empty Pews: Can an NFP course be an agent of evangelization?

The problem of the rare use of NFP is not a lack of information. The basic problem is a two-fold lack of faith, and faith-based love. Catholics may never hear this teaching from the pulpit, or see it in the parish bulletin. But the main issue is that most Catholics today simply don’t believe the teaching.


 While visiting the Twin Cities in June 2011, I learned that my home parish is slated for closure in mid-2012.  The Church of the Visitation in southwestMinneapoliswas created in 1946 because married couples were having babies.  It was carved out of Annunciation Parish, our former home, and Incarnation Parish, each about a half mile from the new church.  Fortuitously, in that June visit, I met a former pastor who agreed with me on the root cause for the closure: contraception.  To be sure, in the last 65 years there have been some changes in demographics, but the area is still middle-class, with the homes well-kept.

In the spring of 2009, Father Timothy Sauppe, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Westville, Illinois, a rural parish in the far west of the Diocese of Peoria, was forced by economics—too few children—to close the parish school.  He wrote to Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, C.S.C., to his parishioners, and posted on the parish website, that the root cause of the closure was the practice of contraception, including sterilization.

Over the last decade, I have read several articles accusing the users of natural family planning for the empty pews, but that is simply not the case.  The 2010 statistics make it clear that less than 2 percent of church-going Catholics are practicing any form of systematic NFP. But, those numbers do not take into account couples at the time of the survey, who were already pregnant, breastfeeding, or just accepting babies as they came. 1  With appropriate adjustments, it appears that the statistics are really saying that at least 90 percent of fertile-age, church-going, Catholics are using unnatural forms of birth control.  Statistics from once-Catholic countries inEurope indicate birth rates well below replacement levels, except among Muslim immigrants.  The Catholic Church in the West is closing its schools and churches.  In short, it is contracepting itself, either out of existence, or into a minor sect.

No one who cares about the Church, as the visible body instituted by Christ for the salvation of the world, can be happy about this.  In fact, no one who appreciates the great contribution to the public square made by well-formed Catholics can by pleased by this self-destructive diminution of its influence.

The problem has been recognized for some time.  In 1989, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in its Committee on Pastoral Research and Practices, published a book on marriage preparation entitled: Faithful to Each Other Forever. In it, they urged that every engaged couple be required to attend a full course on Natural Family Planning.  Recognizing that many couples would not appreciate this requirement at first, they expressed confidence that many would be very grateful by the end of the course.  Unfortunately, only seven dioceses (counting one on the way) currently have this requirement. Twenty-two years later, we are still waiting for the implementation of this recommendation.  Furthermore, two more recent USCCB documents about marriage do not reaffirm the NFP requirement. 2  Given that response, it seems to me that parish priests are called to be the real warriors in the effort to restore authentic Christian faith and practice to our Catholic parishes, and to the public square.

The need for evangelization
The problem of the rare use of NFP is not a lack of information.  There are NFP programs in every diocese, and anyone with access to a bookstore or the internet can teach themselves all they need to know about natural family planning—just Google “NFP.”  The basic problem is a two-fold lack of faith, and faith-based love.  Catholics, who read the papers, or watch the evening news, know that the Catholic Church officially teaches that it is immoral to use contraceptive drugs, devices, and behaviors.  These same Catholics may never hear this teaching from the pulpit, or see it in the parish bulletin, but the secular press takes a perverse delight in publicizing this doctrine, especially when the Pope reaffirms it.  The problem is that most Catholics today simply don’t believe the teaching.

Another serious problem is the difficulty of preaching Catholic teaching on chastity at Masses attended by a regular parish congregation including children.  It is a difficulty shared with the subject of abortion, but difficult is not the same as impossible.  The sexual revolution, and its consequences, simply cannot be completely off-limits, or else the entire area of sexual morality is surrendered to an aggressive, anti-Christian secularism.

I submit that the biggest need in the Church now, at least in the West, is the evangelization of Catholics who do not believe that, what the Church teaches as the demands of love, really are the demands of the Lord Jesus.  Pope Benedict XVI has recognized this by creating the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization.  Benedict has also indicated what the emphasis must be when he wrote in his book on Jesus: “The organ for seeing God is the heart.  The intellect alone is not enough … {man’s} will must be pure and so, too, must the underlying affective dimension of his soul, which gives intelligence and will their direction.” 3  The content of the message doesn’t change, but there needs to be more effort made to help partial believers accept the entire message of faith, with a renewed attitude of personal gratitude to the Lord Jesus for his entire work of salvation, including his gifts of the Church, and its teaching authority.  I suggest that the right kind of NFP course offers a unique opportunity to teach these basic attitudes and doctrines and thus evangelize the young people who are the future of the Church.

What a parish priest can do
The first thing a parish priest can do is to love his parishioners so much that he is willing to suffer some initial rejection.  The next thing he needs to do is to remember that he has three great gifts that are not available to anyone else at that particular place and time.  First, he has been given the authority to teach what the Church teaches in that parish at that time.  Second, he has been presented with the right to preach from the pulpit.  Third, he enjoys the gift of being able to meet with parishioners, one-on-one.  Closely related to this is another gift. Some of his parishioners truly want to do what is right, and others at least want to have their wedding in the church building.

Preaching from the pulpit
First, here’s what not to do.  From vicarious experience, I can say that a priest should never use the term “sexual intercourse” from the pulpit.  A local, well-intentioned priest used that term several times in a Sunday homily, and the reactions, even among the fully orthodox, were negative.  If the subject demands a reference to that act, which is morally proper only for married couples, the term to use is “the marriage act.”  The former physiological term applies to all sorts of sinful activities; the marriage act refers to what the act is supposed to be.

It is my understanding that in addition to the readings of the day, the priest can also focus on the Mass itself. Of course, that includes what the Lord Jesus did at the Last Supper and on Calvary.  Specifically, the priest can focus on the Nicene Profession of Faith. Most Sunday-Mass Catholics are well acquainted with the Nicene Creed, but perhaps the faith of many is more implicit than explicit.  If the core reason behind the widespread Catholic rejection of the teaching, reaffirmed by Humanae Vitae, is lack of faith, then it is necessary for Catholics, in general, to understand what is really involved in the Nicene Profession of Faith.  Christians generally, and Catholics in particular, need to remember, or learn for the first time, that a dozen years after the Catholic Church was “legalized” in the Roman Empire, some theologians and politicians were denying the divinity of Christ.  The heretics were saying that Jesus is the best person imaginable, but still only a human person.  They said he was very much like God, but denied that he fully shared the Godhead with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Both sides quoted the Bible because Jesus made some statements that emphasized his full humanity, and others that emphasized his full divinity.  The bishops of the Catholic Church assembled, talked, prayed, and voted to affirm the tradition that Jesus is true God, as well as true man, of the very same nature as the Father.

The question is obvious: How can we be certain that the bishops at the Council of Nicea got it right?  The answer is found at the Last Supper where Jesus repeatedly promised that he would send the Holy Spirit, who would guide the Apostles, and their successor, into the fullness of the truth.  When we affirm the Nicene Profession of Faith, we are implicitly affirming our Catholic faith that Jesus keeps his promises, and that the Holy Spirit led the bishops of Nicea to affirm the truth about Jesus.

What about today?  The promises of Jesus still hold, and the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Church in its teaching.  That faith is implicit in the profession of the Nicene Creed, but it needs to become explicit.  In my opinion, one of the most important responsibilities of the parish priest today is to lead his parish into the explicit beliefs of the faith that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the teaching of the Church.  In an age that has lost its compass with regard to love, it is more important than ever for Catholics to believe that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love, continues to teach the divine truth about human love—and especially, the demanding truths about love, sexuality and marriage.

There are also a number of other Christian principles involved in the birth control issue, and all of them can be developed from what Jesus did, and said, in the Paschal mystery, his public life, and from other biblical sources.  Some come readily to mind—humility, Christian love, marriage, the daily cross, grace, repentance, the Christian covenant, generosity, and moral consistency.  All of these subjects coalesce to form a right Christian conscience that sees the difficulties inherent in married love as simply an expected part of Christian discipleship.  All of these themes can be, and should be, preached from the pulpit, with guarded allusions to Catholic teaching about love and sexuality.

A second great charism bestowed on the parish priest is the ability to meet with individual persons, and couples, to help them grow in faith.  Here, he has a unique opportunity to evangelize them, and to build upon whatever he has preached at Mass.  Have they truly accepted Jesus as the Lord of their lives?  In making decisions, do they ask themselves what the Lord Jesus wants them to do, or not do?  Do they understand that the ultimate purpose of every human relationship is to help the other person on the path to heaven, and that this applies especially to engaged persons, and married couples?  Do the engaged couples realize that the demands of chaste Christian love require them to be abstinent until marriage, and that loving chastity also rules out excessively stimulating activity?

Then, of course, the priest has the opportunity to present Catholic teaching about birth control, self-control, and the call to generosity in the service of life.   A question that most priests will have to answer for themselves is: “What shall I say and do about natural family planning?”  Even in dioceses that require engaged couples to attend a complete NFP course, he still may have questions.  Some NFP courses are almost exclusively oriented towards NFP-related physiology, and come across as teaching Catholic birth control.  Other NFP programs use an interpretation of the John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, to try to explain the teaching of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae.  Almost all NFP programs say some nice things about breastfeeding, but currently only one NFP program promotes and teaches ecological breastfeeding, the pattern of baby care that truly does delay the return of fertility for an average of 14 to 15 months, postpartum.  Some call it God’s own plan for spacing babies, while others call it the most natural form of NFP because it does not require periodic abstinence.

Most priests serve in a diocese that does not have an NFP requirement. Many others serve in areas where there are no NFP services easily available. So, what can they do?  They can Google “NFP”.  Usually, the top listing is a financial service, but right near the top is NFP International, that does most of its teaching via the internet.  Disclosure: I am the volunteer president of this organization, and co-author of its user’s manual, Natural Family Planning: The Complete Approach.  This 154-page book, in a question-answer format, is available online, as well as in print and e-book versions.  NFP International requests a donation of $10 to download the manual, but those who are poor can download it for free.  This also applies to priests. I think that every priest would do well to have it in his computer because it is much more than mere physiology.  In fact, I urge every priest reader to download it, and carefully read Chapter 1, in which we consciously try to evangelize the prospective NFP user.  In Chapter 6, he can learn about the many benefits of ecological breastfeeding. I can’t imagine any concerned priest who would not want his parishioners to know this information.  Priests, as well as laity, will be refreshed spiritually by reading the beautiful conversion testimonies in Chapter 7.  And if the reader wants to learn the mechanics of the Sympto-Thermal Method, it’s easily explained in the other chapters.  There are no illustrations of external organs.

If the parish priest would like his engaged and married couples to learn NFP from this source, he can direct them to do the NFPI Home Study Course. 4  In this course, the students complete a series of three tests, based on the text, and demonstrate their ability to interpret NFP charts.  A Certificate of Completion is issued upon the satisfactory completion of the tests.

Since the turn of the century, we have heard much about the need for a new evangelization, but have seen few concrete and practical proposals.  I believe that the right kind of NFP course offers a unique opportunity. We have structured our NFP course accordingly.  If a parish priest would like to use an NFP course as an agent of evangelization, he will find considerable help in the NFPI user’s manual.  It is based on the faith implicit in the Nicene Creed, seeking to make that faith more explicit.  It supports the teaching of Humanae Vitae, with a “renewal of the marriage covenant” theology.  It teaches all the common signs of fertility and infertility, and it promotes and teaches ecological breastfeeding as the most basic and natural form of NFP.  This is why we call it “The Complete Approach.”

Of course, much of the doctrine so needed for evangelization can be explained at the parish website, and with bulletin inserts.  In my opinion, however, one-on-one sessions provide a unique opportunity for priests to promote and teach marital chastity, and the generosity so needed to rebuild the Church.

The reluctant couple
The believing priest can expect that most couples are not exactly anxious to take a course on natural family planning, whether by classroom instruction, or home study.  Most of these will readily comply as soon as they realize that this is a normal part of the marriage-preparation requirements in that parish or diocese.  However, occasionally a priest may encounter a couple who demand their canonical rights to be married in the Church, without having to attend such an educational effort.  I doubt that this will ever occur without some coaching by a dissenter, but it raises a question that needs to be addressed.

First, the canonical right to marry in the Church means the right to have the marriage witnessed by a priest or deacon.  It does not necessarily entail the right to be married in the building commonly called “the church.”  In the 1940s, it was a common practice for the wedding of a Catholic and a non-Catholic to be witnessed in the rectory, and a priest can still offer that alternative to those who are adamant about not taking an NFP course.  The question, “Which room in this rectory would you prefer, this one or the one across the hall?” will most likely be met by resigned acceptance of the NFP course.  True, those of us who teach NFP would prefer students who are anxious to learn the subject and to grow in faith, but the presence of reluctant students means that the NFP teacher is simply dealing with the same sort of student found in every required course from grade school through graduate school.

Second, the canonical right is a qualified right.  In his annual speech to the Roman Rota on January 22, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI noted that the right to a church wedding requires that the bride and groom intend to celebrate and live the marriage truthfully and authentically.  Here are two key paragraphs:

The right to marry, ius connubii, must be seen in this perspective. In other words it is not a subjective claim that pastors must fulfill through a merely formal recognition, independent of the effective content of the union. The right to contract marriage presupposes that the person can and intends to celebrate it truly, that is, in the truth of its essence as the Church teaches it. No one can claim the right to a nuptial ceremony. Indeed the ius connubii refers to the right to celebrate an authentic marriage.

The ius connubii would not, therefore, be denied where it was evident that the fundamental requirements for its exercise were lacking, namely, if the required capacity for marriage were patently lacking, or the person intended to choose something which was incompatible with the natural reality of marriage.” 5

What about the priest who serves under a bishop who has ordered his priests not to require an NFP course as a normal part of preparation for marriage?  (I am not making this up.)  Such an edict certainly does not prohibit the priest from incorporating appropriate NFP-related instruction into his own meetings with the couple.  There is nothing in Chapter 1 of Natural Family Planning: The Complete Approach that requires anything more than faith and conviction on the part of the instructor.  For the rest, there is nothing that every priest should not know and be able to teach.  The text contains no images or details about breastfeeding as such, but every priest ought to know and promote the benefits of ecological breastfeeding.  The female fertility cycle is not mysterious, and oral temperature-taking is certainly not intimate.  With regard to the details of observing cervical mucus, and changes in the cervix, the priest can simply state that he feels somewhat awkward discussing these matters, and he can ask the couple to read them by themselves.  If the woman becomes interested, she will most likely have no problem with self-instruction from this manual, and the couple can certainly take the Home Study Course on their own initiative.  As one couple wrote us as I was writing this article, “Thank you.  The book is easy to read and so helpful and informative!”

The right kind of NFP course is a blessing, not just a burden, for engaged and married couples.  Of course, by that I mean the kind of course that explicitly seeks to evangelize its students, encourages generosity in the service of life as taught by the Church, promotes and teaches ecological breastfeeding, uses easily understood concepts to support Humanae Vitae, and teaches the signs in a cross-checking way in order to reduce abstinence to a minimum.  I doubt that a biology-only NFP program will help couples go beyond seeing NFP as something more than Catholic birth control. I doubt that such a program will advance the evangelization mission of the Church.

This right kind of NFP course is a win-win-win situation for the couple, the priest and the Church, with one important proviso.  The priest has to make it clear that he is making this requirement because he loves the couple, and wants what is best for them, and their children, both for eternity, and for right now.  At the very least, the right kind of course has sown important seeds.  Sometimes, it happens that when the mother is experiencing the joy of ecological breastfeeding, the couple will realize that God really does know what He is doing, and that may open their hearts to the rest of the NFP-related teaching.

The importance of evangelization
The Church has suffered great numeric losses in the last 40 years, and the birth control controversy has been a key element in this tragedy.  The dissent from Humanae Vitae, and false impressions of Vatican II, created an atmosphere of theological uncertainty, and indifference.

On the other hand, the divine truth about human love and sexuality has a great power of attraction for those who are seeking the truth.  Scott Hahn regarded himself as one of the most anti-Catholic students in his seminary, but providentially he read a covenant-focused explanation of Humanae Vitae. 6  His immediate reaction was to throw the book across the room, but he later picked it up.  He now credits it with helping both him, and his wife, to accept that part of Catholic teaching.  We have had women tell us that their interest in becoming Catholic was initiated by practicing ecological breastfeeding, first learned from a book written by someone who did not hide her Catholic faith—my wife.  Another woman wrote an open letter about her conversion.  As an atheist married to an agnostic, she learned about NFP from a Catholic friend.  The couple taught themselves, and then practiced systematic NFP.  As a truth-seeking atheist, she continued to read the theological parts of their NFP manual as her bedtime reading.  One night, she had an inexplicable conversion, and they eventually entered the Church.  There are no guarantees, but the truth has power, and perhaps the power to accept the truth is enhanced when accompanied by practical ways to live out the truths of Catholic teaching.

Love and sexuality and child nurturing are right at the heart of human experience.  The Church has the truth on these great issues and wants to share these truths.  The priest will do his couples, his parish, and the wider community a great service by doing everything he can to explain these truths in the light of Christian discipleship, and making good use of the tools at-hand.  That, I submit, is an important part of the new evangelization that is so needed today.


  2. Married Love and the Gift of Life, Committee for Pro-Life Activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 14, 2006;  Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan, A Pastoral Letter of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 17, 2009.
  3. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Doubleday, 2007) 92-93.
  4. The materials for the NFPI Home Study Course are available in two ways.  1. The couple downloads the manual from the NFPI website and purchases a quality basal thermometer locally, for this option NFPI requests a donation of $70.00.  2. The couple requests NFPI to send them a spiral-bound manual and a quality thermometer; for this option NFPI requests a donation of $105 that includes shipping costs.  The actual instruction material, tests, correction and personal help are the same in each.
  5. Address of his Holiness Pope Benedict XVI on the Occasion of the Inauguration of the Judicial Year of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota,January 22, 2011, paragraphs 8 and 9.
  6. John F. Kippley, Birth Control and the Marriage Covenant (Liturgical Press, 1981).  Revised and republished as Sex and the Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality (Ignatius Press, 2005).
John F. Kippley About John F. Kippley

John F. Kippley is Co-founder and president of Natural Family Planning International. He was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He married Sheila (Matgen) Kippley, and they have five children and ten grandchildren. He earned a B.A. in philosophy at St. Paul Seminary; an M.A. in industrial relations from University of Minnesota; an M.A. in theology from the University of San Francisco; an M.A.T. in applied theology from the School of Applied Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California; and an Honorary Doctor of Ethics from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has authored several books, including: Battle-Scarred: Justice Can Be Elusive; Birth Control and Christian Discipleship; Marriage Is for Keeps; Sex and the Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality; and multiple articles and brochures dealing with Catholic sexual morality, natural family planning, and related issues. All the books and many of the articles are currently available at, the website of NFP International.


  1. Avatar Rebecca Teti says:

    I would just like to offer some encouragement along these lines. While it’s true that some lay people may be initially resistant, I think priests will also find that many will be not only open, but angry that they haven’t been told these things previously. In 20 years doing marriage prep work in the DC area I’ve found, “This is beautiful, but I’m a cradle Catholic and went to Catholic schools all my life. Why have I never heard this before?” to be a very common response when Church teaching is presented sensitively yet thoroughly and without apology.
    To dissent in part, though, while certainly NFP teaching is widely available, it’s not my experience that people know Church teaching and reject it. Most of the couples who come through our program have literally never heard the Church opposes contraception (or cohabitation, for that matter). No priest, parent, grandmother or anyone at all has ever said such a thing to them. They are not generally hardened in opposition to Church teaching, but are tabula rasa (a blank slate) on which to teach and build.

  2. Here we go again. NFP is not morally good. It is morally neutral and the Church allows it in certain grave circumstances. What the Church teaches is that marriage is for making babies. Have you heard a priest talk about that recently? Nope. Have you gone to confession and had a priest tell you to stop trying to not have babies? Nope. You could explain these things all day long and the wide majority of lay Catholics wouldn’t accept them anyway. They like being Modernist and Feminists. They don’t won’t to give it up. It takes real sacrifice for Mom to birth, nurse, and care for 6,8, or 10 children. It takes a bigger sacrifice for Dad to be the sole breadwinner in today’s economy. Modern Catholics can’t and don’t want to do it. They’d rather just do like everyone else. The priests let it happen, the bishops let it happen, and so did the Holy Father. Now it’s time to pay the piper. The pews are empty because no one is having babies. NFP will just keep them from having babies……I know. I was taught NFP at my parish and all of us used it to NOT have babies. Contraception–only natural. Weep. Our Lady of La Salette did.

    • Avatar Elizabeth says:

      I was so happy to read your Reply ~ exactly my thoughts when I read this article. Nowhere in it does it mention that NFP is to be used only in grave situations. This article doesn’t even make sense to me. How in the world does teaching all couples the use of NFP accomplish bringing people back to the Church? What a ridiculous assertion and the big push for NFP without adequate and complete teaching on the subject, i.e., to be used only for grave reasons, will endanger even more souls. Good Lord, save us from this modernist toxic nonsense.

  3. When I read your headline, which suggests that we can refill our empty pews by using NFP, I thought it was some kind of bizarre joke, or Chestertonian paradox. Since it is clearly obvious, at least to me, that most people who use NFP use it to “put off” the having of children I guess I fail to see how having less children will result in standing room only at Mass.

    I am continually amazed that some in the Church, even at the highest levels, promote NFP. On the one hand we fight artificial contraception because it results in less children and on the other hand we promote NFP which results in fewer children. And, forgive me, but this talk of NFP “strengthening” marriages, etc is merely self-delusion.

    Take it from someone who practiced NFP and now faces retirement age with less children to bring him joy and consolation.

  4. anne cherney anne cherney says:

    Mr. Kippley, I believe the course could be such an agent only if its name were changed. Of course the Church has made it clear that it is legitimate for married couples to sometimes make exclusive use of the infertile period when there is appropriately serious reason, but the name the practice presently goes by, natural “family planning,” seems to belie this. This name seems to say that the Church is teaching that we NEED to plan here. In which case, the practice becomes the norm, rather than just the exception under certain circumstances, and also makes those who “just accept children” somehow out of order! Furthermore, if the Church really is promoting “family planning,” then She seems to have moved into Margaret Sanger’s camp–and if family planning is being mandated, the Church should be satisfied if we just do it the easier way, with the pill! I believe that if the course were called “Natural Child Spacing,” the primary form obviously being ecological breast feeding, it would more clearly reflect the truth…and thus be a better tool for the Lord to use. If Rebecca Teti is right, that Catholics don’t know that the Church opposes contraception, it is probably because they have heard that the Church promotes “family planning.”

  5. Personally I think the Kippleys’ manual on NFP, an empty chart book, and a good basal thermometer should be given for free to all couples doing marriage prep. NFP curriculum/books/teachers usually have fees (especially methods other than symptothermal) and I think a lot more couples would be interested in or willing to take classes, read books etc if they didn’t have to pay for them first (who wants to spend $20 on a book about something you don’t think works and has an alternative you don’t understand why the church claims is sinful?) And what a great way to show support for NFP would it be for parishes to have fundraisers to purchase those books and thermometers? It’d be highly visible, but wouldn’t have to take up homily time. It’d probably cost about $30 per couple, and most parishes don’t have more than one wedding per week even during summer, and not even that many in winter, so under $1000 total for the parish for the year, or probably much less than that. Anyway, that’d be my proposal if my priest ever asked my advice on the subject!

  6. I totally agree that the issue regarding Natural Family Planning is the lack of Faith not just from married couples but from the Hierarchy , Priests,and the lack of belief in the teachings and respect for Pope Paul V!’s Humanae Vitae

    As a teacher for 30 years in the UK, have experienced this at first hand.

  7. Avatar Terry Hornback says:

    Rebecca has the same answer that I have encountered for almost 40 years.
    The silence is thunderous!

  8. Avatar Fr. W. M. Gardner says:

    I can’t help but notice here that Mr. Kippley admits that there are problems with the widespread promotion of NFP; namely, that it easily can be understood as Catholic birth control. This is because periodic continence is indeed a form of birth regulation. The regimen of periodic continence limits, or regulates, birth by preventing sexual relations during the fertile times.
    Even birth spacing (per se) has the effect of reducing births. To use a rough analogy: if you lengthen the interval between flight arrivals, then fewer flights will land before the runway is closed. If my parents had deliberately practiced birth spacing, some of my brothers and sisters would not exist. How does one weigh the merits of “properly” spaced children vs. the existence of a soul? That question is ultimately above the purview of human judgement.
    Lastly, I’d like to mention that the promotion of sterile acts of sexual intercourse dampens the intellectual clarity of the Church’s teaching against so-called “gay” marriage. Instead, we need to return to the timeless Catholic teaching crystalized by St. Augustine: procreation is the primary end (purpose) of sexual intercouse. All the other ends are secondary and subordinate to this procreative purpose. As Cyndy wrote above: marriage is for making babies!
    Thank you for the discussion.

    • Avatar Elizabeth says:

      Thank you, Fr. Gardner!!!

    • Thank you Fr. Gardner. You are correct of course about the primary ends. Unfortunately, Pope John Paul II, in what he called the “final document of Vatican II” – the 1983 code of Canon Law, erased that hierarchy of ends. Paradoxically, NFP, would have qualified as more legitimate under the old code, which is why Pius XII “allowed” it in his “Adress to Midwives”. However, the 1983 canon makes the unitive and the procreative co-equal and inseparable, thus, engaging in the marital act with the intention of avoiding pregnancy is itself NOW a violation of the NEW Canon Law.

      • Avatar Fr. W. M. Gardner says:

        Interesting points, Tim. Within the traditional understanding (the primary end of sexual intercourse Is procreation) the key virtue seems to be purity. Hence, to engage in sexual intercourse beyond the need for procreation always implies at least a minimal degree of vice (venial sin). However, to abstain completely from sexual relations for a serious reason would not violate purity (witness St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary).
        Now, under the personalist approach (co-equal meanings or aspects of sexual intercourse: procreative and unitive) the traditional concept of purity is jettisoned and replaced by the principle of inseparability. This permits the couple to engage in sexual intercourse with the intention of avoiding pregnancy (with no degree of vice whatsoever) as long as they do nothing to separate the procreative meaning from the act of sexual intercourse. The new approach condemns artificial contraception (HV, 14), but also seems to completely exonerate periodic continence… if I am not mistaken.

  9. anne cherney anne cherney says:

    May I enter this discussion again?

    I discussed this matter many times with Servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. He was of course not opposed to the Church approved use of periodic abstinence when there were serious problems. But such use does not encompass the full scope of definitively taking the matter into our own hands and “planning” the family. He said that NFP was to be promoted to counter contraception, never to counter just accepting children from the Lord. After all, the time of ovulation was just discovered about 1930–before that, from all time, the Creator, partly by making use of the properties He had built into appropriate nursing, decided by Himself when He wanted to give new life! “The only truly Catholic ‘family planning’,” said Fr. Hardon, is ‘SUPERnatural Family Planning’.” Because John Kippley puts emphasis on ecological breast feeding as the primary means of spacing children, I believe Fr. Hardon would only disagree with him on the use of the word “planning.”
    Then again, how about we try to evangelize by promoting “Supernatural Family Planning”?

  10. This is a truly beautiful and insightful article. John Kippley speaks the truth of my life and marriage. I was a rather blind academic, a feminist who married a beautiful and open Protestant who later converted to Catholicism and is now in formation to be an ordained Catholic deacon. In the Diocese of Phoenix Arizona,where we lived, a one session NFP overview class was required for marriage prep. We went. My husband thought this was the best idea he had heard. We took the full class and have been practicing NFP for the entire 25 years of marriage. It was the vehicle for our deep conversion back into Catholicism for me and into Catholicism for him.
    The Church does not say that marriage is for procreation primarily. With Vatican II, the Church says that the marriage act is for procreation and unity for the couple. This means that by working with the natural rhythms of the woman’s cycle, the couple can live out what they discern to be God’s will for their family life. Postponing a pregnancy can be a generous act. The Church calls couples to responsible parenting and not to just have as many children as they can. Practicing NFP is a way to practice the virtues and expand the couple’s hearts in generosity. In our case, we said we’d like two kids at the onset of marriage. By learning to appreciate our fertility and the gift of life through us, we prayed, discerned God’s preferences as best we could and had six children. NFP has been a deep blessing for us and a powerful means of conversion for each of us!

  11. I think this post mixes two separate issues: (1) the declining size of the Catholic family, and (2) contraception vs NFP.
    If NFP is effective in controlling conception, then even though NFP is permitted and even encouraged within the Church, and even though contraception is prohibited, the effective use of both will result in smaller Catholic families, i.e., less children.
    The author opens the post by lamenting the smaller size of Catholic families, and as a result, the closure of Parishes. This issue has nothing to do with the choice of NFP vs contraceptives, but with the choice to have less children. I believe this choice is fundamentally an economic one: Today, more families require two incomes to survive, and consequently, the parents can spend less time with their children, because as a whole, they are working more. The larger the family, the greater the expenses, and the more time is required of the parents. Add to this the fact that college/university education is much more of a requirement today for higher-paying jobs than it was 70 years ago, and you can see why large families require a lot of money.
    If the author is serious about the declining size of the Catholic family, then rather than discuss NFP, he should encourage Catholics to have more children, and regard the almost certain consequence of a poverty as a religious challenge that the faithful are called upon to assume. If the author is uninterested or unwilling to make such a challenge, then there’s no point discussing the dwindling numbers of the faithful and the closure of Churches. Rather the author should just focus on NFP vs contraception.

    • “Mayer” does have a point here about economics and Kippley has sometimes brought up the discussion of ‘stay-home moms’ versus working moms in the past. The debate is fierce against women not working. I personally would have found it very emotionally draining, and had ineffective parenting myself, to have my several children and work, too. Yet, your comments beg another debate….do parents have an obligation to fund college? We have partially funded ours and still have a couple left. The youth seem to ‘own’ the college work better if they help w/expenses.

  12. Thanks for your comments. I agree with many of them. To the extent that an NFP course does not teach ecological breastfeeding, and does not teach the need for serious reason to use systematic NFP, and does not teach Catholic morality and an easy-to-grasp theology, such a course will come across as “Catholic birth control” and will justify many of the concerns expressed above. That is why I try to keep stressing “the right kind of NFP course.”
    My universal reply is this: read our NFP manual, “Natural Family Planning: The Complete Approach.” You can download it at our website,, for FREE. Of course we would appreciate a donation, but if you are merely curious or are short on funds or otherwise reluctant to support NFP International, by all means download it for free. You can also download free charts at the homepage.
    You will find that we promote ecological breastfeeding as God’s own plan for spacing babies. We clearly teach that systematic NFP “is not ‘Catholic birth control'” and that “Marriage is for family” and that couples should use systematic NFP “generously, not selfishly” and that they need a sufficiently serious reason to use systematic NFP. And that’s just for starters. Then we get into specific biblical and ecclesial teachings including Humanae Vitae 10 and 16. There is only so much I could say in a general article; I think that most concerned readers will be satisfied with our treatment of these matters in the manual.
    I agree with Ann Cherney that Natural Child Spacing would be a better term; that’s part of the title of one of my wife’s book, “Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing.” But that sort of a name change will require a much wider agreement.
    To Fr. Gardner I would reply that if your parents had done ecological breastfeeding and experienced the average eco-bf spacing of two years between babies over 25 fertile years, you might still have had 9 or 10 siblings but certainly not 20. Regarding a connection between birth control and sodomy, I think there’s a connection, but it’s linked to the acceptance of contraceptive behaviors, not chaste periodic abstinence. Once a couple and a culture believe that it is morally permissible to take apart what God Himself has put together in the marriage act, there is no logical stopping point. You will find more on this in the manual.
    Mary Gannon Kaufmann offers a wonderful example of how learning NFP can help to open a couple to the truth about marriage. Her experience is by no means unique. I frequently travel by the home of a couple who came to our NFP course to learn how to keep their family at two, but what they heard there led them to have seven. He regularly thanks me.
    Yes, it a paradox. The right kind of NFP course truly can help to refill the pews.

    • Avatar Fr. W. M. Gardner says:

      “To Fr. Gardner I would reply that if your parents had done ecological breastfeeding and experienced the average eco-bf spacing of two years between babies over 25 fertile years, you might still have had 9 or 10 siblings but certainly not 20.”
      Mr. Kipley, my dear parents had about 15 years of fertility, with 10 children born and 5 miscarriages. I was blessed to be the first-born of this gang. My point is that questionable theories about the “proper” spacing of births should not preclude the existence of souls, such as my youngest siblings. I hope you understand that they are not abstract entities, but very concrete beings and each just as precious as the first-born, second-born, etc.
      I do appreciate your steadfast opposition to artificial contraception and your concern for the health of mothers and children. And you’ll not find a finer priest than Fr. Tim Sauppe, or a more courageous bishop than Bishop Daniel R. Jenky!
      So… let’s fill those pews! No birth control. No prevention. Just lots of babies, with lots of love and joy! (Mt. 19:14)

  13. anne cherney anne cherney says:

    Mr. Kippley, I did get that name idea from your wife’s book! Just these many reactions your article generated shows the tremendous confusion that exists out there on this question, even among that special educated minority of Catholic laity who read HPR! I believe the confusion is ALL because of the name being now used. To promote “family planning” is to endorse Planned Parenthood’s goal…whether by the same means or not. Catholics have heard that promotion, and proceed to go ahead and use the pill–easier means to same goal–or use NFP to postpone or limit children while they pursue careers…or for other inappropriate reasons. Of course it will be an uphill battle and may take a lifetime, but I believe that most Catholics are presently using the abortificiant pill because of the misunderstanding caused by that name…so we need to start NOW to try to change it! God bless you for your dedication.

  14. We used the Kippleys’ materials + were able to discern well with them having our 10 children. Thus, we know that their materials are quite complete; we even “voted” for the current NFP manual’s title. Their proper transmission of the full teaching regarding married love was also instrumental in my husband’s conversion to Catholicism. My biggest complaint today regarding NFP instruction is that many courses only teach one fertility sign for couples who do need to avoid a pregnancy for serious reasons. This essentially chooses for them what they will use. The Kippleys’ course teaches all the signs of fertility + allows the couple to choose from these, plus different rules, or breastfeeding to space children. It seems as if no other course also teaches against contracepting behaviors, such as withdrawal, or barrier-use in the fertile time. Without this critical moral teaching, the marital act can be treated improperly + NFP is not really in the marriage at all. It disturbs me how judgmental some of these posts are in not acknowledging that there are many couples who do live out this teaching in a beautiful, grateful way, spacing children, struggling not to be arbitrary but also being “responsible” as we are called to be. We live in very difficult times trying to raise children. I used to wrestle with God + asked Him more than once, “How come you let us know our bodies so well that we can plan families with it?” His answer seems to be, “To get folks off artificial contraception”. THAT is the real evil, not NFP in a proper context.

  15. Avatar Elizabeth says:

    another anne: I don’t think the posters, myself included, are being judgemental in the sense I think you mean. The problem for me you state quite plainly and innocently where you say:

    “It disturbs me how judgmental some of these posts are in not acknowledging that there are many couples who do live out this teaching in a beautiful, grateful way, spacing children, struggling not to be arbitrary but also being “responsible” as we are called to be.”

    Within the same sentence, you express dismay at the judgemental posters while extolling the many couples who “live out this teaching…….SPACING CHILDREN, ……”. Spacing children, unless for serious reasons, is the problem. Isn’t that the couple family planning, not God? Of course we all know that there are some couples who space children because they do have serious reasons to take it out of God’s hands. In the effort to try to teach the evils of artificial contraception, a lot of current NFP teaching seems to be accomplishing the same thing (blocking God’s Will by stopping children or ‘spacing’ children). Just not with man-made chemicals or man-made barrier methods.

    I’m sorry but I don’t agree with your question for God of why he’d give us the know-how to do this if he didn’t want us to use it! My goodness, God has given us intellect and free will. But we also are sinful creatures and easily led astray or confused by the Evil One, especially in areas of so-called ‘good’. In an effort to extricate ourselves from the use of artificial contraception, we replace it with NFP and convince ourselves that NOW we’re doing God’s Will.

    I just don’t see it.

    I suppose it continues to come back to the question of the term ‘serious reasons’. You say we are called to be ‘responsible’. I think we’re called to be ‘generous’.

    • NFPdoes not stop married couples from having large families-they can have as many as they and can cope with, but there a families who can’t cope through unemployment and illness etc; and also like myself continious miscarriages after two births and thank the Lord that the second lived .

      I praise God for the knowledge of Fertility Awareness, to make us responsible adults.

    • Humanae Vitae teaches that serious reason and generosity are not in any way opposed, using both of them in this key sentence. “With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more childen, and by those who, for serious reasons [seriis causis] and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time” (n. 10). I inserted the Latin words for serious reasons. Elizabeth, I encourage you to read our NFP manual. You may be surprised at our effort to maintain the balance that is inherent in Catholic teaching.

      With regard to what different NFP programs teach, it is my understanding that it is common practice for even secular fertility awareness (FA) programs to teach against the use of barrier methods and probably against withdrawal for strictly pragmatic reasons–the risk of pregnancy from those behaviors. The problem is that many FA and NFP programs avoid teaching against masturbation, whether mutual or personal, and against marital sodomy (completed anal or oral copulation). The latter may be a growing problem since a recent survey indicated that something like two-thirds of older unmarried teenagers have had oral sex. It is completely unrealistic to think that couples taking an NFP course would never think of engaging in such behaviors, and that’s why they need to hear authentic Catholic moral teaching in NFP courses.

  16. anne cherney anne cherney says:

    Mr. Kippley, I have got to say thanks! I just sat down at my computer because I had thought to add to the discussion that we just need to go back to Humanae Vitae to get it straight…and I was going to quote those same couple of lines from paragraph 10…and you had done it for me! I wanted to point out also that the first version of “responsible parenthood” HV mentions is just leaving it in God’s hands and accepting children. That is responsible! The second method is resorting to charts and thermometers and the infertile period when there are appropriately serious reasons. Thanks again.

  17. I take this opportunity to thank Mr Kippley for his article on Eucharist and Marital which I read many many years ago in the late Sixties it brought me to the clear understanding of Catholic teaching on ‘Marriage and the Eucharist’
    When one understands it,they would not be inclined to use contraception.

  18. It is my understanding of Church teaching that we may co-operate w/God + not do anything contraceptive to the marriage act when we do come together + that is morally acceptable when we discern a serious need to avoid a pregnancy. Please correct me if I am wrong; I pray NOT. I once read an article that said that there can be no “NFP index” for what is a serious reason. It was posed: “Does a mom need to be actually going crazy in order to avoid a pregnancy or just feel like she is?” We have no idea what is going on within another marriage. We also had unemployment, overseas military trips, miscarriages and NO help from non-Catholic + fallen-away Catholic family members who practically disowned us with our “Catholic-thinking”. Many are in the same boat w/o parish support, either. I appreciate trying to form people but it often sounds very judgmental; I often say to myself: “There is no way this person is married, or else they have super-genes, lots of money + a fantastic Catholic support system” {none of which we ever had}. And I know that THAT is being judgmental – forgive me? I know God gave us NFP in His Mercy + many of us are forever grateful to the Kippleys for giving us the whole teaching w/o any mincing of words. Used properly, their book is helpful to discern lust/ selfishness/ pride/ laziness or any other spiritual ill. Otherwise, we would be living as “brother and sister”, which we would do if Mother Church asked us.

  19. I am not surprized with this article. There are criteria for thetrajectory of self donation. A permanent commitment; this shows the bonding to be real each person to each other is special. in marriage. The sexual act must be a procreative kind of act. NFP allows the couple tomeet the 2nd criteria NFP cannot do what cotraception does that is turn the conjugal act into a different KIND of act It cannot be used as a contraceptive. Using the generative faculties in a way that involves self-donation is an enormous task. NFP puts them on the right track-with no gurantees, however. NFP goes a long way in helping meet the 1st criteria. Humanae Vitae must be followed.

    • Reading a notice in my a Church Bulletin ‘ Marriage Care need Counsellors’ as they have more clients that they can cope with. How sad is that!

      Marriage breakdowns are not all about sexual problems ,but a huge cause are related to a lack of understanding and selfishness towards one partner or the other in a relationship which ought to be based on love and trust and the Holy Trinity ,the other partner in the Holy Sacrament of Marriage.
      For sickness and in health,richer or poorer, better and for worse.
      Marriage will have its anxieties if the act is used in a contraceptive contradiction to the teachings of Holy Mother Church. Guilty feelings including doubts and maybe have the effect of one or the other losing their faith which will undoubtedly result in the absence of the Sacrament of Confession.
      One may go along with the secular belief in using contraception for many years whereby missing Holy Mass, resulting then in the further case of any children not been brought up in the faith

      The couple if they have remained faithful to each other and the female has reached the menopause will eventually then return to the Church and the Sacraments which will be pleasing to the Lord- unfortunately a lost generation has resulted by this time.
      An on going cycle of events.

      I have noticed that America unlike the UK have produced many pre-marriage Courses in some Dioceses. Also The Eternal Word Television Network also in a weekly programme on NFP.

      If couples preparing for marriage as the above article suggests-couple would understand their fertility and their faith, what the Church teaches, then Marriage Care in the UK would not need more Counsellors to cope with their clients, and all those years of frustrated married couples who clearly suffered doubts would have realised that the marriage act would be limited to 5 days at the most t
      NFP can cope with coming off the Pill- Menopause and so may more problems caused by the use of contraception.

      When will the Hierarchy produce programmes on NFP for couples preparing for marriage, and place that in their Bulletins?

  20. If asked why contraception is wrong, one wouldn’t answer it is wrong because you are choosing to not have a child. It is not necessarily wrong to chose to not have a child (just to be clear it could be wrong but whether this decision is right or not is a separate question). The reason contraception is wrong is because it tries to have the act of intercourse while taking away the fact from that act life can come. When one uses systematic NFP they don’t try to have marital union and not have a child, they don’t have the union. This is the key difference, namely that contraception changes the nature of th act as Martin briefly mentions. Understanding this is essential to understanding why contraception is wrong and why those who use NFP respect the nature of the act as something that can bring forth life. I wish this distinction was made more often because I believe it helps those who are on the fence about using NFP vs. contraception and it helps those who worry NFP is practically contracepting.

    The other question though that has to be discussed is how couples determine whether or not they should avoid a pregnancy. Many make it seem there has to be deathly level illness or disaster to employ its use. Please check out this amazing article from HPR =
    I wish it could be required reading as it is so helpful and clarifies that “grave” is a poor translation and instead something like weighty or important reasons is more appropriate. The point is while one shouldn’t use NFP without a well-grounded reasons that avoid selfishness one doesn’t have to have a life and death matter on hand to use it. I think the entire article is well worth he time, especially so this quote can be appreciated for the balance it has:
    “When the definitions of important words in the Italian and the Latin are fully understood, HV seems to be saying that couples should not space births by using periodic abstinence for certain periods of time or indefinitely based on insignificant reasons but should do so earnestly because of weighty, important matters in their lives. These certainly include negative situations but are not limited to them. The motivation could also be, perhaps should be, framed positively, to promote positive values and goals, such as: physical and/or emotional integrity, financial stability, the proper exercise of the responsibilities one has towards one’s existing children, or for any number of pure motives truly in service of the Church or mankind.”

    Finally, it is a joy to hear of priests like Fr. Gardner who are so joyfully to have lots of children present. With that being said, I don’t think anyone promoting child spacing would ever say for children that already exist that oh that is a shame we don’t want them here – I say this in reference to your comment about your siblings. However, spacing is a great gift that allows parents to not only have children but to raise them well, meaning having the time and energy to give to them. I think the promotion of just lots of babies with no holding back so to speak would turn off lots of people who already have kids and realize the huge amount of responsibility and time involved. Honestly you would turn off a very serious Catholic like me if I didn’t know better. It also adds to the secular notion that priests need to be married because they don’t know what it is like to have kids (that is they haven’t like many moms not had a solid night sleep in years, etc.) While God calls us to generosity in having children He also calls us to use prudence when determining if we can have another. We are called to procreate and educate not just procreate and have as many babies as we can squeeze in our fertile years.

  21. anne cherney anne cherney says:

    Jackie, of course couples using sysematic NFP are trying to have intercourse and not have a child! It doesn’t help clarify confusion by adding more confusion. The two undeniable purposes of marriage, neither of which we may ever set aside, are the unitive and the procreative. Of course when we have intercourse only on infertile days we are not separating the unitive from the procreative purpose of the particular act…as we would be on the pill…because the particular act cannot right then be procreative. But in the bigger picture, by deliberately avoiding other days, we are separating the unitive from the procreative purpose of marriage itself! To make exclusive use of the infertile period in order to avoid a child, UNLESS it is really to enable us to fufill the other half of procreation, the raising of the children, is seriously wrong. You are absolutely right that we are called to “procreate and educate, not just procreate.” But yes, a very important reason that contraception is wrong is because it is preventing the child! You are forgetting the unfathomable value in which the Creator God holds each one of us. Look at Jesus on the cross. We need to be born before we can be reborn. God has an unlimited desire to bring people into His Kingdom, has left His own job of creating people in our hands, and wants us to generously welcome them the way Fr. Gardner sees they are to be welcomed. Don’t ever value one less than you value yourself; in marriage, don’t ever value something else more than you value one of them.


  1. […] Refilling the Empty Pews: Can an NFP Course be an Agent of Evangelization? – John F. Kippley PhD, Homiletic & Pastoral Review […]

  2. […] read entire story click here. Buffer COMMENTS POLICY: Comments are limited to 1500 characters, and should not contain […]

  3. […] Refilling the Empty Pews: Can an NFP course be an agent of evangelization? Carl Olson of (Ignatius Press Insight Scoop) links to John F. Kippley Homiletic & Pastoral Review […]

  4. […] Refilling the Empty Pews: Can an NFP course be an agent of evangelization? (Homiletic & Pastoral Review) […]