How three dioceses are bringing NFP to Hispanic Catholics

Catholic News Agency

By Mary Farrow/Catholic News Agency

Susana Diaz gets a kick out of watching couples’ faces during their first marriage preparation class.

Diaz, who is the manager of marriage ministries for the Archdiocese of Miami, said she likes watching people realize they will be talking about sex, in intimate detail, in a church setting.

“Most of the time that is the first moment that they realize what NFP is, or that the Catholic Church is talking about sex. Some of them, they’re in shock. So yeah, being in that class, it’s hilarious. Seeing their faces is fun,” Diaz told CNA.

Natural Family Planning, or NFP, is the term for a variety of methods by which married couples can chart their fertility to plan and space children according to Church teaching.

Learning a method of NFP is a standard requirement of marriage preparation in most Catholic dioceses throughout the country, and many couples are exposed to the concept of NFP for the first time during marriage preparation. Still, most dioceses find themselves playing catch-up when it comes to having Spanish NFP resources proportional to their Hispanic populations.

And because the topic of NFP can be so intimate and awkward, it is all the more important that it is being presented in a person’s native language, Diaz said.

“They feel more comfortable in Spanish because it’s a new topic. Even if they speak English and they’re receiving the (marriage preparation) class in English, when they need to talk specifically about sexuality, about NFP, they feel more comfortable in their first language, Spanish. And that’s why we’ve always given them that option,” Diaz said.

In recent years the Archdiocese of Miami has worked to ramp up their NFP resources available in Spanish, due to their large Hispanic population.

“We have Cubans, Venezuelans. We have a lot of Nicaraguans too,” Diaz said. In some parishes in the archdiocese, the number of Spanish Masses offered outnumbers the English Masses. All major events and Masses of the Archdiocese are celebrated in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole, and Archbishop Thomas Wenski is fluent in these three languages, Diaz added.

In the Archdiocese of Denver, Hispanics make up more than 50% of Catholics. But Spanish NFP resources, particularly Spanish-speaking instructors, can be difficult to find.

“Part of the battle is finding individuals who are interested in teaching,” Carrie Keating, NFP and Marriage Specialist for the Archdiocese of Denver, told CNA.

“And especially if it’s a method that we don’t have a lot of experience with in our diocese, it makes it even harder because you’re trying to recruit someone who’s bilingual or Spanish speaking that actually knows the method that we haven’t even had taught here.”

The Archdiocese of Denver does not have any Spanish speakers available for the Billings Method or the Marquette Method of NFP, Keating said, but they have at least one Spanish-speaking instructor for the Creighton Method and 10 couples teaching the sympto-thermal method through the Couple-to-Couple League.

Keating said she was also recently approached by a Spanish-speaking woman who wants to teach the Family of the Americas method in Spanish in the archdiocese, and they are working with her to make that method available.

Besides language barriers, learning NFP can be either cost- or time- prohibitive for some working Hispanic couples, Keating said, and the Family of the Americas method will be more cost-effective and less time-prohibitive than some of the other methods.

Alejandra Bravo, the associate director for Hispanic evangelization at the Archdiocese of Denver, told CNA that she is working to provide more NFP resources in Spanish because she believes it “makes more sense” for people to learn the methods in their native language.

“I remember I was taking the classes five years ago with my husband, and we both speak English, but we feel comfortable in Spanish because that’s the way we communicate at home. And that’s the way we talk about topics that are important to us,” Bravo said.

“So it is definitely something that we are working on, it is one of our priorities,” she said.

The Diocese of Phoenix is another diocese with a significant Hispanic population – roughly 70% of the 1.2 million Catholics in the diocese speak Spanish.

Ana Luisa Martinez de Carillo is the facilitator of programs in Spanish in the Office of Natural Family Planning for the diocese.

Martinez de Carillo told CNA that the Diocese of Phoenix has 16 Spanish-speaking NFP instructors who teach the Family of the Americas method.

While Spanish instruction in various NFP methods can be found online, Martinez de Carillo said it is helpful to have instructors in the diocese who can provide “personalized follow-ups with each couple, and sometimes more follow ups are needed for the couples to feel confident in using the method. Our instructors walk with them, supporting them, answering questions, and also referring them to seek further medical attention if they detect a problem or the clients inquire about it.”

The Diocese of Phoenix is also working with the St. Augustine Foundation to develop a free video series in Spanish about fertility and Natural Family Planning for married couples.

Martinez de Carillo said that while she would like to bring even more methods of NFP in Spanish to the Diocese of Phoenix, she is proud of what they already have to offer couples.

“It is a reality that we can do more for our Spanish speaking community and offer them more resources, like offer more NFP methods in Spanish, but right now we feel confident that [with] the number of classes we offer with the [Family of the Americas] method, we are serving our Spanish-speaking community greatly,” she said.

There are some specific advantages and unique challenges to teaching NFP to Hispanic populations, some instructors told CNA.

Guadalupe Carral, who teaches the Creighton method of NFP in the Archdiocese of Miami, said that because NFP impacts so many aspects of a couple’s life, it is best if couples learn the methods in their native language.

“This is so personal. I mean, human sexuality involves so many things. It’s something spiritual, physical, intellectual, communicative, emotional. So being able to express yourself in your mother language, I think it’s definitely a difference,” Carral said. “There’s a lot of different feelings and thoughts that are related to couples that decide to do NFP that I definitely feel like it’s important for them to feel comfortable to express all that they want to communicate with a person that’s going to completely understand that.”

Carral first learned about the Creighton method of NFP through a friend, and she became an instructor in the method because of her passion for helping couples who are experiencing infertility. She said once Hispanic couples decide that they are going to really practice their Catholic faith – a faith they typically inherit from their families – they are open to learning and practicing NFP in their lives.

“When they want to go down to their roots and live their faith well and do what God asks us to do, I think that they’re very open to NFP, especially when they listen to the success rates [of NFP],” she said.

Carmen Santamaria, another bilingual NFP instructor in the Archdiocese of Miami, first learned about Natural Family Planning during marriage preparation classes. At the time, the Archdiocese was recruiting instructors, and Santamaria believed so strongly in what NFP could do for married couples, that she and her husband became certified teachers in both English and Spanish.

Santamaria said she has been involved in efforts to improve the Spanish NFP resources for the Couple-to-Couple League in the past few years so that they speak more directly to Hispanic populations. The league’s sympto-thermal method has always been taught in Spanish, she noted, but updated materials were necessary.

“Unfortunately, sometimes Spanish language programs in the Church tend to be just translations of American or English programs,” she said. “And that’s fine, they can meet a need. However, it doesn’t necessarily speak to the reality of the Hispanic population or, it’s not necessarily where they’re at.”

Santamaria, who is Cuban American, said the Hispanic population in the Miami area “runs the gamut” of cultures and socioeconomic statuses, from “migrant workers to professionals.”

With the help of technology and Hispanic instructors, Santamaria said they were able to create NFP resources that represented a variety of Hispanic cultures.

Another challenge to teaching NFP to Hispanic populations can be the cultural taboos surrounding topics of sexuality and the nitty-gritty of fertility, instructors told CNA.

“There is the taboo that exists in Hispanic cultures around sex. It is something that it is hard to talk about because there is no sex education or too little in Hispanic cultures. You can see how the couples open up once you start talking about sex with them, the call for marriage that God has, and when you also even joke around it, this relaxes them and you can see how they open up,” Martinez de Carillo said.

Santamaria said she has also noticed an initial discomfort in talking about fertility in the couples she instructs, but she said the courses can be especially eye-opening for men, and that the communication involved in the methods ultimately strengthens marriages.

“Obviously NFP is really focusing on the woman’s fertility, and the man has to learn these things,” Santamaria said. “And I think that it can really strengthen a relationship, especially a marriage, because…it makes the men change their focus.”

There is also another challenge facing anyone teaching NFP to any population, Diaz said, which is convincing couples that they do not have to use contraception to plan and space their children and families.

“We always have the same challenge no matter if the message is for the Anglo or Latino community; this is to provide the message of a unique natural method, approved by God and the Catholic Church, and healthy for a woman’s body, to achieve or avoid pregnancy.”

COMING UP: NFP in real life: Hard, but worth it

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In honor of NFP Awareness Week, which begins July 23, let’s talk about sex.

Natural Family Planning (NFP) is offered as an option to help Catholic families either achieve or avoid pregnancy, including spacing children. Training in NFP is required for marriage preparation in the Archdiocese of Denver, but after that, it’s not much talked about outside of certain circles, either in everyday conversation or from the pulpit. It’s nearly foreign to mainstream healthcare, although more NFP-trained doctors are now available. But it’s a very important part of family life for many Catholics — and, like family, it is both beautiful as well as hard and messy.

And it is worth it.

Life after marriage prep

Jenny Uebbing, who writes at Mama Needs Coffee, a blog connected to Catholic News Agency, recently wrote, “What do you want/need from the Church in order to live NFP?” and the resulting comments from readers were eye-opening.

Many people are seriously struggling with living it out.

The difficulties are as varied as the people themselves: Crosses in all shapes and sizes, including infertility on one end of the spectrum and super-abundant fertility on the other, making it hard to space children apart. Long periods of abstinence, medical problems, feeling isolated from instructors, finding trained doctors or other like-minded people are just some of the other common hardships.

“People are so hungry for support from the Church, who they’re trying to be faithful to,” Uebbing said. “And a lot of people are feeling that the Church doesn’t see them in this particular struggle, or have anything to offer past marriage prep short of an emergency intervention when they’re on the brink of divorce. There’s no middle ground.”

But most NFP users are walking the “middle ground” of every day family life with very little help, and many find themselves disillusioned as they encounter these difficulties.

“One big [realization from the many comments and emails] is that so much of our expectations of what marriage should look like are very rooted in a Protestant understanding of love, which is white-knuckle chastity until marriage, and then once the rings are on, all bets are off,” Uebbing said. “There wasn’t really a category mentally for chastity within marriage. There’s this disconnect that there’s an ongoing training in chastity as a couple, that you don’t actually have complete 24-7 access to each other’s bodies, unless you want to end up with 25 kids.”

That expectation only works with the assumption of using contraception, which is true for most of the world. But for couples who practice NFP, marital intimacy doesn’t work that way, said Uebbing. Even so, in her experience, it’s still easy to fall into the trap of practicing with a contraceptive mentality.

“That’s always a temptation, slipping into playing God with it, that trying to avoid should be the default setting. I don’t think that’s normal or healthy but that is the normal in our culture,” Uebbing said. “That’s such a bummer to me that that’s always our default setting, even as practicing Catholics. That it’s remarkable when a baby is conceived.”

People are so hungry for support from the Church, who they’re trying to be faithful to. And a lot of people are feeling that the Church doesn’t see them in this particular struggle, or have anything to offer past marriage prep short of an emergency intervention when they’re on the brink of divorce. There’s no middle ground.”

But trying to avoid a pregnancy or space children for “just reasons” as the Cathechism of the Catholic Church (#2368) notes shouldn’t be looked down upon, either, and is, in fact, a responsibility of the parents that’s based on their discernment of God’s plan for their family.

“I’m so grateful the Church doesn’t have a list of [what just reasons are]. And she never will, because she is our wise mother who is raising adults, not a preschool teacher with a list of classroom rules,” Uebbing said. “So it is up to them, but also depends on each couple working continuously to form their own conscience and be submitting their will for the marriage over and over again to the Lord and asking, ‘What do you want?’”

Common, and uncommon struggles

The journey to holiness in marriage is not without suffering. But it’s always an opportunity to trust God more deeply and receive his gifts in ways we could never have imagined for ourselves. Some of those crosses come as people practice NFP.

“The biggest struggle I’ve seen with people is just that we live in a contraceptive culture. So no matter how you slice it, you’re going to get pushback,” Uebbing said. “It’s not normal to have children anymore. So just that positions you in a place of complete defiance of what the world says is normal and expected and typical.”

Medical issues are a common struggle. Uebbing knows couples who have to abstain for extensive periods of time due to serious underlying medical issues.

“If they don’t want a baby, they’re looking at years of abstinence. And it’s heroic, and it’s something that God has called them to particularly in their marriage,” Uebbing said. “It’s not something that any of us would plan for in our marriage, just like we wouldn’t plan for a spouse to get cancer, or for a child to struggle with mental illness.”

Mental illness has been a struggle in Uebbing’s personal experience: After each birth, she suffers from severe post-partum depression, which is one of the reasons their family spaces their children, simply so her mind and body can heal after delivering.

“A super-abundance of fertility is it’s own kind of cross, and it’s easy to look at a family with six or seven kids and think, ‘Well, they must have been made to have a really big family,’” Uebbing said. “I do love my children, but there’s not great material support, or even psychological support for families who are in that situation.”

How the Church can help

Following conversations with readers after her NFP blog post, Uebbing spoke to friends who are priests about ways the Church can better support couples who practice NFP.

“One piece that was really clear was that we need better formation for our priests on a seminary level. I have some really interesting conversations with priest friends…who had no idea that there were different methods, that it wasn’t cut and dry and that not every couple used it the same way,” Uebbing said. “One said, ‘This would be helpful information to have in the confessional when I’m counseling people pastorally.’ If we’re asking our priests to accompany married couples, they need to know the nitty-gritty.”

“Few people take advantage of talking to their priest. There is no question that can’t be asked,” said Father Timothy Hjelstrom, pastor of St. Louis Parish in Louisville, Colo.

The biggest struggle I’ve seen with people is just that we live in a contraceptive culture. So no matter how you slice it, you’re going to get pushback. It’s not normal to have children anymore.”

“Priests should become familiar with it beyond the technical aspect of it. And couples should be willing to talk to their priest if they have questions or struggles. We’re not here to be condemning,” he added.

Uebbing said that there should be “real material support” for people who practice NFP, and one way to help could be creating a slush-fund for people who can’t afford to pay for meetings with instructors or classes and are desperately needing help.

“This is an aspect of women’s healthcare that’s a really critical piece of knowledge [for women’s overall health], and it shouldn’t be this weird add-on that you learned about during your marriage prep, but that it’s an ongoing, essential part of what it means to be human and what it means to be living out a married vocation,” Uebbing added.

Where to go for help

If you’re struggling in using NFP, first know that you’re not alone. Second, reach out.

One great help to those seeking support in NFP is other married couples, said Uebbing.

“I think every couple [should find] one other married couple, even if it’s not locally, and really come into an honest exchange [with them]. Find at least one other person or couple to talk frankly with,” Uebbing said. “I think people are afraid to be too real, but it doesn’t do anybody any favors to pretend that it’s super easy and super beautiful. They need to know people struggle with this and make huge sacrifices for it, and it’s worth it.”

If you’re struggling with the ins and outs of your fertility, Uebbing said make the investment and get an instructor or doctor you can work with regularly.

“I think because the internet exists, there’s no reason you can’t find an instructor. You don’t need someone to sit down with you in person, you can do everything over Skype or over the phone,” Uebbing said. “There are increasingly more NFP-trained physicians, so for people with harder cases, I just can’t underestimate finding a doctor who can do those blood draws. Even if it’s long distance and you go to the lab and they’re analyzing your stuff once a year — what’s more important than your health and the health of your marriage?”

For more resources on what the Church teaches about NFP, visit Jenny’s blog at catholicnewsagency.com/mamaneedscoffee. For resources on NFP in the Archdiocese of Denver, visit archden.org/eflm/nfp.

The office of Evangelization and Family Ministries is also hosting an event for NFP families on Saturday, August 5 with a vigil Mass at 4 p.m., followed by a picnic and lawn games at the John Paul II Center. Call 303-715-3252 to RSVP.