Infographic: ‘Humanae Vitae’ anniversary sees an emphasis on Natural Family Planning in the church.

(iStock/D-Keine)(iStock/D-Keine)

Fifty years after the publication of “Humanae Vitae,” the use of artificial contraception has become broadly accepted even among Catholics.

Of the 1,508 Catholic women who completed our survey in 2017, a bit more than one-fifth reported using N.F.P.

A 2014 Univision poll found that large majorities of self-identified Catholics support the use of contraceptives, including: 94 percent in France, 93 percent in Brazil, 91 percent in Argentina and Colombia, 90 percent in Spain, 88 percent in Mexico, 84 percent in Italy, 75 percent in Poland, 68 percent in the Philippines and 79 percent in the United States (but only 44 percent each in the African nations of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda).

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But efforts to provide a reliable, natural alternative to artificial contraception have continued. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops founded its ministry for Natural Family Planning through its Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth in 1981. According to America Media’s 2017 national survey of Catholic women, 22 percent report using Natural Family Planning as a method of postponing pregnancy without the use of artificial contraception, including: 33 percent of women who attend Mass weekly, 36 percent of the pre-Vatican II generation, 26 percent of the millennial generation, and 18 percent of “Vatican II Catholics” (those born between 1943 and 1960).

In a 2015 online survey of 2,560 N.F.P. practitioners in the U.S. and Europe, majorities of both men and women reported benefits from the practice.

“The whole goal from 1981 until now [has been] to make N.F.P. ministry an integral part of marriage and family ministry in the diocese,” said Theresa Notare, assistant director of the U.S.C.C.B.’s Natural Family Planning Program.

“Nearly 40 years later, we have mostly achieved that,” Ms. Notare said. “People are more open-minded...today’s bishops are knowledgeable, supportive and educated about the science and methodology of N.F.P. They see the responsibility to facilitate a Catholic couple’s access to these methods.”

Almost all U.S. parishes include N.F.P. in marriage preparation guidelines, but the spending and staffing for N.F.P. programs can be minimal.

Ms. Notare says that more than half of the nation’s 197 dioceses have very strong N.F.P. ministries that are part of diocesan marriage preparation programs. And, she says, contemporary couples are more receptive to information about natural family planning and fertility methods because they are more sensitive to living a natural lifestyle. (For information about N.F.P. ministry programming and specific resources for diocesan N.F.P. coordinators and teachers, see the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

Catholics and Protestants show little difference in the use of what the Guttmacher Institute terms “highly effective” contraception.

“Seeing the consistent inclusion of N.F.P. in marriage prep over the last 20 years is a huge, steady accomplishment and an important advancement for this ministry,” said Ms. Notare. “But there is always more work to be done.”

A 2016 study by the U.S. Catholic bishops found that 53 percent of dioceses spent less than $5,000 per year on N.F.P. programs; 19 percent budgeted more than $30,000 a year for such programs. The study also found that 49 percent of N.F.P. instructors in parish programs were unpaid volunteers.

U.S. Catholics are far more likely to consider abortion than “morally wrong” than feel the same way about contraception. 

Infographic sources: The America Survey, commissioned by America Media and conducted in August 2017 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University; surveys on abortion, contraception and religious liberty from 2013 and 2016 from the Pew Research Center; “Contraceptive Use in the United States” fact sheet, the Guttmacher Institute (September 2016); attitudes on Natural Family Planning from study by Matthias Unseld, Elisabeth Rötzer, Roman Weigl, Eva K. Masel and Michael D. Manhart, Frontiers in Public Health (March 13, 2017); 2016 National Diocesan Family Planning Survey, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Crystal Watson
1 week ago

It's hard to believe the poll which says that 22% of Catholics use NFP. Other data from various sources rates the percentage to be about 2 percent ... https://www.guttmacher.org/religion-and-family-planning-tables.
Given that Humanae Vitae was so contested at V2, contested by bishops' conferences around the world, contested by theologians, and by lay Catholics, it's strange that the church still clings to such a failed doctrine.

Michael Barberi
1 week ago

I have not seen or studied this survey but I am familiar with the Univision survey and other surveys taken over the decades on the opinions of Catholics on contraception and other sexual ethical teachings of the magisterium. Many of the surveys report findings by age cohort and Mass attendance, among other metrics. The trend over the past decades are not in favor of NFP and this article does not change this trend.

Everyone knows that the rationale offered in support of Humanae Vitae have failed to persuade the overwhelming percent of worldwide Catholics, including weekly Mass attendees, to practice NFP. Since only about 22% of Catholics attend weekly Mass and according to this article 33% of women who attend weekly Mass practice NFP, this fact does not seem to point to any meaningful change in the opinions of Catholics regarding birth control.

Let's face it, Catholics have made up their mind a long time ago about Humanae Vitae, and according to a 2002 survey of U.S. priests, 40% of younger and older priest do not believe that contraception is a sin.

In the end, any moral teaching, in particular HV, will rise or fall on its moral rationale. With respect to HV, few Catholics believe that NFP is God's Procreative Plan as the magisterium wants us to believe. Make no mistake about what I am saying: there is nothing wrong with practicing NFP. If anyone wants to choose it as a birth control method, go for it. However, to claim that NFP is a birth control method that is "open to procreation" while taking the pill is not, is a ridiculous and unsubstantiated argument. Pope Pius XII said that for good reasons a couple could practice NFP for a long time or a lifetime. How is this being open to procreation?

I have written a essay, published in a prestigious Catholic Journal of Theology, called 'The Origin of Humanae Vitae and the Impasse in Fundamental Theological Ethics'. Without repeating why HV should be responsibly changed, this article is at best wishful thinking if the author thinks that the so-called tide is changing.

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Michael Barberi
6 days 12 hours ago

I just read the 2017 national survey of women. I am surprised that the author Ms Escobar misstated the facts. The survey asked ever-married women and those in a cohabitation relationship: "have you ever used NFP". This question is different from "do you currently use or have you ever used NFP as your primary birth control method"? The answer to this question is different from the question 'have you ever used NFP"? Someone may have used or tried NFP in their child-bearing years but this does not mean that NFP is their primary birth control method.

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