For three decades, Roman Catholics were told that the only approved system for avoiding pregnancy was rhythm, a method that supposedly allowed a woman to determine on which days of her menstrual cycle she could have sex without the risk of having children.
These days, another message is being delivered.
"I'm not going to tell you to use rhythm," Father John Woolsey announced at a recent marriage preparation class in a Staten Island parish hall. "Rhythm doesn't work."
Eyes widened and jaws dropped, but the priest was only saying to the engaged couples what the church has been saying, albeit quietly and sometimes uncertainly, for about 15 years: Rhythm is out and "Natural Family Planning" is in.
Under rhythm, which the church advocated from the 1930s into the 1960s, a woman tried to estimate her fertile and infertile periods by using a calculation based on an "average" menstrual cycle. But individual irregularity frequently frustrated the method, which some disparaged as "Vatican Roulette."
In 1969, the U.S. bishops conference decided to encourage Natural Family Planning (NFP), but it remained a low priority in most dioceses--family planning had become a difficult subject for clergy and laity, and one not easily discussed from the pulpit.
Like rhythm, NFP prescribes periodic sexual abstinence. But NFP "updates" rhythm by using specific biological signs--primarily changes in a woman's cervical mucus and basal body temperature--to determine fertile periods.
"We could not believe what a difference NFP made in our marriage," said Rosemary Brunetti, a 44-year-old Staten Island mother of two. "It's natural lovemaking with no barriers. It's full and right and the way it should be--open to life."
Critics, however, say NFP will always be too demanding for most couples. Others argue that the Catholic church should do more to promote the use of NFP, a method that might reduce the need for abortion and contraception, so vehemently opposed by church leaders.
Led by Pope John Paul II, the church is beginning to emphasize NFP after years of neglect. In the past three years, the 179 American dioceses offering NFP instruction has increased from fewer than 100 to more than 150.
Still, few of the the nation's 52-million Catholics use or even fully understand the method.
The 1982 Survey of Family Growth found only 8% of married Catholic women and 4% of all American women had used NFP or rhythm. When the Pittsburgh diocese advertised its NFP program on radio, "We got a lot of callers, but the callers did not turn into practicers," reported James Bender, director of the diocese's family planning bureau.
Catholics "don't really know what (NFP) is, or they don't believe it's possible to control their sexual urges, to abstain periodically," said Walter Sweeney, director of the New York archdiocese's NFP program.
Although theoretically NFP is 98% effective, almost as reliable as the birth control pill, Bender said his program had been able to achieve no more than 90% effectiveness, which means that in a year, 10 of 100 women will accidently become pregnant.
Other studies have found NFP to be only 80% effective. "When NFP purists say '98%,' it's false advertising," Bender said. "We're dealing with the reality of real women" who don't always practice NFP perfectly.
A woman practicing NFP tries to identify the fertile period of her menstrual cycle by noting two signs of ovulation: changes in her cervical mucus and the monthly rise in her body temperature.
The mucus change means ovulation is about to occur; the temperature rise means it has occurred. When the mucus changes, a couple ceases genital contact; they may resume sex six to 12 days later, when the unfertilized egg has died. The longer the period of sexual abstinence, the lower the risk of pregnancy.
The church favors NFP because it believes sexual intercourse should always be open to the possibility of procreation, and that barriers to conception, such as the pill, condom or diaphragm, are unnatural and sinful.
Why then is NFP not also objectionable, since it allows couples to have sex on days when they know almost certainly they won't conceive?
"The church has a moral problem with contraception itself--it lessens the integrity of the sex act" by mechanically barring the possibility of children, Sweeney said. "It's a little mysterious, but they (procreation and pleasure) can't be separated."
Judy McInerney, 42, a Ridgewood, N.J., mother of five, made the classic Catholic birth control Odyssey. When she and her husband, Eugene, were married 20 years ago they tried to practice rhythm--and had three children in four years.
They switched to the Pill, and regretted it.
"When sex is always available it's not so special," Judy McInerney recalled. "You take each other for granted . . . I didn't know if Gene appreciated me."
NFP's requirement of periodic abstinence, she said, means "we're a lot more tuned in to our needs, and we're more sensitive to each other's feelings."