Can bishops require natural family planning instruction?
At the recent Fertility Conference in Milwaukee (July 15-17), the miniscule numbers of Catholics using natural family planning was duly reported. The question of requiring a complete NFP course as a normal part of preparation for marriage was raised, and that in turn raised another question. Can bishops and priests make this requirement with any teeth in it?
Can they actually refuse to allow a refuse-to-attend couple to marry in the Church? A moral theologian at the conference noted that Catholics, like everyone else, have a natural right to marry. Thus, the Church cannot enact rules for marriage preparation that would deny this right. I agree a hundred percent.
But there is something called leverage. By canon law, the priest cannot refuse to witness the marriage of a man and woman who are qualified to marry, but that doesn’t mean that he has to agree with their choice of place. If a couple refuses to accept an NFP-course requirement, the priest can calmly tell them that he is obliged by the law of the Church to witness their marriage. Further, he can witness their exchange of vows either in the Church building or he can witness it in the rectory. The choice is theirs.
The precedent for this is long established. When I was young, it was common policy that if a Catholic married a Protestant or other non-Catholic, the wedding would take place in the rectory, not the church. I witnessed such a wedding between my Aunt Harriette and her Lutheran husband.
Thus the answer to our question is obvious. The bishop or even an individual priest can require attendance at an NFP course as a normal part of preparation for marriage. But will it do any good? Does the course need to be much more than “Catholic birth control”? Should the NFP course be an exercise in evangelization?
Tomorrow: The NFP course as evangelization.