In a world accustomed to sex on demand, Rafael and Rosemary Alva live a radical life. The couple, members of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Northeast Portland, practice and promote natural family planning, a Catholic-approved way for couples to choose when to conceive.
NFP, as the Alvas proclaim, uses no drugs, devices or any other artificial means. Instead, it requires a couple to pay close attention to the womans body and abide by the signs nature gives. Shown to be more effective than condoms and some other birth control, it calls for abstinence from intercourse at fertile times.
On top of that, couples say, NFP enhances marriage.
It has been a discovery experience, says Rafael, a 35-year-old financial expert at Intel. It has brought us closer.
The intimacy may be a result of the candor and teamwork the method requires. Each morning, Rafael finds a special (basal-body) thermometer and puts it in the mouth of his sleepy wife. He then reads her temperature and logs the numbers on a chart. Combining that with Rosemarys close attention to monthly developments in cervical mucus and the feel of the cervix itself, the couple now has a way to gauge fertility. They then make decisions about sexual activity based upon this knowledge.
NFP promotes communication, says Rosemary, 30. One of the nice things about it is that it is the couples responsibility together.
Abstinence, Rafael admits, is not all that popular among men, whose libido seems always on. But NFP offers lessons in understanding that womens bodies are different and wondrously made. Rafael has learned about the influence of hormones and the emotional highs and lows they create for his wife. He has come to accept the design and sees it as a complement to his own more even-keeled emotional life.
NFP has also taught Rafael that love is not all about intercourse.
The Alvas find love letters, pillow talk and cuddling just a few of the enriching activities that they would probably miss were they open to intercourse any time they felt like it.
For Rafael, the times when he and Rosemary were intentionally trying to conceive rate as a pinnacle experience not only of the body, but of the spirit.
You know the moment when you are creating life, he says. It is not a surprise after some passionate moment. It is such a spiritual experience. It is amazing.
For her part, Rosemary admits that NFP requires some women to abstain at the very time when they feel the most sexual desire. But, she says, there are a lot of different ways to show affection, and she would never give those up for more intercourse.
Nothing really worth having in life comes easily, Rosemary adds. NFP does come with effort but it is worth it.
The couple, who met while schooling at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, have three children. All were planned.
Ages 4, 2 and five months, all were born in spring, just when the Alvas intended. That is because Rosemary has a medical condition that would make pregnancy risky during the hot summer months.
The Alvas prepared for marriage in Pennsylvania and heard about one form of NFP from the priest who helped them. In 1995, they were wed in Rafaels native country, at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
When the couple moved to Portland in 1996, they signed up for an NFP refresher course with Northwest Family Services, based at Providence Portland Medical Center.
There, they learned the sympto-thermal method of NFP, which was developed here in the Archdiocese of Portland in the 1970s.
NFP has come a long way since the rhythm method developed in the 1930s. That technique was based on counting days during previous cycles and making a prediction, whereas NFP focuses on the current cycle.
The sympto-thermal method uses new discoveries and incorporates multiple ideas to post a theoretical 98-percent effectiveness rate, close to or above the rates for much artificial birth control. In almost every study of actual effectiveness, the sympto-thermal method works better than condoms.
Along with the effectiveness, many couples experience a sense of moral integrity.
My experience is that couples who have faith and want to live their Catholic faith and not just pick and choose, seek out NFP, and they use it, and there is a serenity about their whole position, says Father Richard Huneger, pastor of St. Rose in Portland and one of the key developers of the sympto-thermal method. Our life is a sacrament, and it applies to the marital love of the couple.
In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, teaching that using artificial means of birth control impedes divine natural law because it separates the unifying and creative possibilities of intercourse. The pope called on couples to develop a new and most noteworthy form of the apostolate of like to like, teaching their peers natural ways of responsible parenthood.
The Archdiocese of Portland was one of the first several regions in the nation that attempted to implement the mandates. In 1977, Father Huneger began working with several couples in Milwaukie to form such a ministry. The priest helped write manuals on charting body temperatures and symptoms and has been interested in the issue ever since.
Its important to have the witness of faith from one couple to another, Father Huneger says. These couples like the Alvas are living out their married lives in accord with natural law.
In 1983, Father Huneger joined Rose Fuller to incorporate Northwest Family Services.
Father Huneger describes the Alvas as a vibrant couple who are happy living out their Catholicism. They have a very transparent joy in their faith, says the priest.
Both Rafael and Rosemary grew up in strong Catholic families but went though a period of disillusionment followed by a re-claiming of faith. After that new conversion, the loose and fast moral choices of some of their peers seemed a disastrous course.
We saw lots of other people who decided on doing things against the teaching of the church and we saw the misery that they experienced, Rosemary says.
Some Catholics, the Alvas realize, bristle at following church teaching on sexuality. But Gods commands, like our own controls for children, are offered out of love, Rosemary says.
We give our children rules to follow for their well being, like Dont touch the hot pan, she explains. They may not understand, and they may have the misfortune of finding out the wisdom of the rule the hard way. I see God the same way, and I see NFP the same way. Weve come to find out how special it is and how good it is just by the good fortune of following the rules. . . . God is giving us a means to be closer to him.
The Alvas plan to begin explaining NFP to their children fairly early.
That can reinforce sexuality as something beautiful, not something shameful, says Rosemary.
At St. Rose, the couple helps engaged couples prepare for marriage. Discussing NFP is a key part of the process.
Jay Wonacott, director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of Portland, sees NFP as a great untapped gift the church has to offer the world.
In NFP there is a greater appreciation of the human body and how it is made and how God has a greater plan for us, says Wonacott. The world is telling us one thing about the way sexuality works, and the church is telling us something different.
To illustrate an important point, Wonacott has shared with marriage preparation groups that he and his wife waited a week after their wedding to consummate their marriage because his wife was fertile on their wedding night; they had serious reasons for avoiding a pregnancy.
Wonacott says that his story helps to show engaged couples that sexual expression in marriage is a thoughtful choice, not an uncontrollable compulsion.
He credits Pope John Paul for extending the message that Pope Paul VI offered in Humane Vitae. In addition to being both a means of uniting a couple and creating life, sexuality is best understood as a way of giving ones total self to another, the current pope has said throughout his priesthood.
The pope is saying we cant use people for our own sexual gratification, Wonacott says.
Our culture is full of self-absorbed sexuality. The pope wants to flip that on its head and teach that the body is a gift for the other, a donation of the self. You give yourself away in love. . . . People are not to be used as a means to an end.
The core of the popes theology of the body is being able to recognize the image of God in the other person.
Saying, The pope is no prude, Wonacott explains that current Catholic teaching holds that sexual abstinence in marriage offers renewal and refreshment to sexual life. Despite often-stereotypical understanding of Catholic teaching about sex in the popular culture, when examined for what it is, Catholic teaching about sex is something quite positive and beautiful, Wonacott says.
Wonacott also sees NFP as a possible touch point for evangelization.
In Oregon, some couples choose NFP not for reasons of faith, but for good health. Unlike birth control pills and inter-uterine devices, NFP has no side effects and is relatively inexpensive to learn and use. Other couples, when they are having trouble conceiving, turn to NFP to pinpoint the most fertile time. It can also help women identify a pathology and seek medical help if necessary.
Natural family planning, Wonacott says, is a way to show the real beauty and sensibility of the churchs teaching on sexuality.
NFP found safe, reliable
Natural family planning refers to methods used to achieve or avoid pregnancy. It is not the so-called rhythm method.
To avoid getting pregnant, couples abstain from intercourse for the week or so each month when the woman is fertile and can conceive.
The method is based on observation of the naturally occurring signs of a womans menstrual cycle, namely changes in cervical mucus patterns.
Husbands and wives work together to monitor the womans temperature, which rises as a woman prepares to ovulate. Changes in the cervix itself can also signal the onset of fertility.
The Church is for responsible parenthood and the use of natural means to regulate birth, says Jay Wonacott, director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of Portland.
Until the Anglican Churchs Lambeth Conference in 1930, all Christian churches held that contraception was wrong.
The week of July 21-27, 2002, has been declared Natural Family Planning Week by the U.S. Catholic Bishops.
Wonacott recommends a course from certified teachers for couples interested in NFP.