Diocese of Stockton Takes a Bold Step to Encourage Engaged Couples to Embrace NFP! by Deacon Steve Budnik

January 27, 2023 Article by  

I was selected to assume the newly created position of Coordinator of Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of Stockton in October of 2019. At that time the only Diocesan level policy related to marriage preparation was the Policy on the Place of Marriage. As you can imagine from its name this document included nothing about preparation of couples for marriage. Our Director of Liturgy was working on a draft Marriage Preparation Policy which included the appropriate canonical and liturgical requirements as well information on the preparation of the couple. It became my job to edit the portions of the document relevant to the preparation of the couple and manage the approval and release process of the document which included changing its name to Directory for the Preparation for Marriage. It was considered essential to the task of setting standards for Marriage Preparation to make the document reflect Bishop Cotta’s vision for Marriage Preparation as pastoral accompaniment and ongoing formation. In promulgating a directory, we do not want to disturb the good work and programs that are being effectively used in preparing couples for marriage; but we do want to encourage better accompaniment of couples through the process.

Pastoral accompaniment is integrated in all aspects of the preparation process outlined in the directory. However, there are two new components of marriage preparation introduced by the directory that naturally work hand in hand to foster evangelistic pastoral accompaniment.

One of these is the provision of Engaged Couple Sponsors who maintain informal one-on-one contact with the engaged couple in way similar to sponsors in the Christian initiation process. The intent is that through parish-based friendship the Engaged Couple Sponsors will bear witness to Matrimony in its lived reality. Through loving, encouraging, and listening to the engaged couple, the sponsors also welcome them anew into a living relationship with Jesus.

The other new component of the marriage preparation process is Natural Family Planning (NFP). Of course, the formal marriage preparation programs used in our diocese — Engaged Encounter Weekends, parish-based marriage preparation classes, and online marriage preparation — all include an introduction to NFP. The hope is that the introduction will encourage couples to seek additional instruction. Although these introductions serve the purpose of “breaking the ice” about NFP, I think the hope that engaged couples will seek additional NFP Instruction before or even in the early days of marriage is a bit unrealistic. An essential topic of marriage preparation is living the universal call to chastity within the marriage covenant and the beautiful intimacy of keeping each conjugal experience open to children. Modern science has given us the ability to discern the fertile period of a woman’s cycle by observing symptoms and charting those symptoms from month to month. Of course, we identify the application of this science to delay or achieve pregnancy as Natural Family Planning (NFP).

As most of you reading this article are aware, NFP has many benefits for married couples:

Improves intimacy as couples cooperate with fertility and share responsibility

Improves communication and fosters respect for and acceptance of the total person

Encourages respect for the dignity of children and acceptance of them as gifts from God

Honors married love as sacred

Is effective for delaying and achieving pregnancy

Encourages ongoing discernment of the readiness to bring children into the family

Recognizing these benefits, let alone beginning to appreciate them in personal way, is not likely to come about through an hour-long introduction.

How do we provide more?

The simple answer is require more. Requiring more gives the signal that what is required is important; but how do we make the ‘more’ effective? If we simply require more hours or require a specific class, meeting the requirement is likely to be viewed as getting a rubber stamp. It is also important to note that NFP selection of method and amount and type of instruction is subjective to the couple and instructor.

After consultation with Sheila St. John at CANFP, pastors, priests, and those involved in marriage preparation in our diocese we decided to include a requirement that would encourage one on one consultation of the engaged couple with an NFP Instructor. We require sufficient instruction (as determined by the NFP instructor) to be able to practice the NFP method chosen by the couple. (Full text of the requirement is included at the end of this article).

The words “to be able to practice” were carefully chosen. The intent was to go beyond just learning about NFP, in a theoretical sense, to living it, by learning to actually chart their fertility under the guidance of an experienced teacher, and applying the principles in a real and concrete way in their own life. The hope is that through honest conversation with their instructor and the encouragement of their Engaged Couple Sponsors they will “catch the NFP bug”. We pray that accompanying couples in this way as they prepare for marriage, will equip and inspire them to embrace the universal call to chastity within the marriage covenant and the beautiful intimacy of keeping each conjugal experience open to children and recognize the great gift of NFP.

Diocese of Stockton Directory for Preparation for Marriage: Natural Family Planning

Natural Family Planning (NFP) uses fertility awareness—knowledge of a couple’s fertility—in planning for children. In Natural Family Planning, the spouses learn to understand, accept, and use their God-given phases of fertility and infertility for the purpose of achieving or avoiding pregnancy. In this way, the unitive and procreative, the love-giving and life-giving meanings of sexual intercourse are maintained together in a morally responsible way. (See Familiaris Consortio, 11, 32.)

In a society where many, even many Catholics, reject the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception (often without fully understanding it), it is essential that couples be presented with the Church’s teaching in a pastoral manner, together with the acceptable methods of responsible parenthood the Church commends.The Natural Family Planning component of marriage preparation is to be sufficient instruction (as determined by the NFP instructor) to be able to practice the NFP method chosen by the couple. A certificate of completion issued by the instructor must be submitted to the pastor or his delegate for inclusion in the marriage file. The pastor may dispense from the Natural Family Planning component of marriage preparation for couples who are beyond childbearing years. In such circumstances the pastor must include in the marriage file a letter dispensing the couple from this requirement, specifying the couple’s age as the reason for doing so.

Engaged couples can find a list of available instructors and online options at the Natural Family Planning page of the Diocese of Stockton website: https://stocktondiocese.org/natural-family-planning

Deacon Steve Budnik, CANFP Member, has served as Coordinator of Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of Stockton since moving to the diocese in 2019. He serves in diaconal ministry at Our Lady of Guadalupe, Fremont, in the Diocese of Oakland (where he is incardinated), and at Our Lady of Guadalupe, Lathrop (where he resides). He and Corrie, his wife of 43 years, are blessed with three adult children and one grandchild