BY KATHY SCHMUGGE
COLUMBIA — With a combination of genuine warmth, knowledge, and faith, Father Matthew Habiger, a moral theologian, was well-equipped to take on Goliath.
The giant in this case was the task of informing South Carolina Catholic couples and youth that there is an authentic way to love, and though it may not be popular with current culture, it is one found in the teachings of the church.
The Benedictine priest from the Archdiocese of Kansas City spoke at six parishes in the Midlands during a week in July. Those parishes included Our Lady of the Hills Church, St. John Neumann, and St. Thomas More in Columbia, Transfiguration Church in Blythewood, and St. Ann Church in Rock Hill.
He concentrated his talks on Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body,” a collection of papal audiences on the beauty of human sexuality.
Habiger sees the “Theology of the Body” as the fertile soil to plant the seed for understanding and embracing the church’s teaching on sexuality that respects a woman’s fertility and rejects the temptation to use another person for self-gratification.
“In marital love, there is a bonding of bodies, a bonding of hearts, wills, minds and a bonding of persons,” he said. “It is all these dimensions. If it is just about bodies, you have diminished it.”
Father Habiger spent a weekend giving talks at St. Mary Help of Christians Church in Aiken, the church that sponsored the visit along with the Diocese of Charleston’s Family Life Office. After giving the homilies at all the Masses, he conducted a parish mission on “God’s Plan for Human Love: The Beauty and Spirituality of Natural Family Planning.”
As part of Natural Family Planning Outreach, an international evangelization team, the Benedictine has traveled the globe to inspire and encourage men and women to follow God’s plan for spousal love, for marriage and family.
In the presentations, Father Habiger spoke about NFP from the faith perspective, Dr. Steve Platte spoke from the medical perspective, and two couples from their experiences.
“We may use different languages and have different approaches in our discussion but it is the same reality, the same truth,” Father Habiger said. “NFP is a way of life, a set of values where men and women discover the complexity of fertility and respect this gift from God. It is reliable, responsible, and morally good. It demands chastity, self-sacrifice and virtues that are important for marriages to last.”
During the week, Platte, an emergency medicine physician in Aiken and a diocesan NFP instructor for the Couple to Couple League, presented “Good Medicine and Good Morality: The Perfect Fit.”
“If I told you I had a pill that was natural, 99 percent effective, very low cost, and was a morally accepted method of achieving or avoiding pregnancy, you would think it was too good to be true,” Platte told the audience. He then pointed out how NFP has those advantages without the moral or medical problems.
He cited as an example that oral contraception increases a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer or developing blood clots. Oral contraception and similar drugs can also cause a chemical abortion by preventing implantation of new life in the uterus, a fact that few people are told, Platte said.
According to the doctor, modern Natural Family Planning methods are worlds apart from the “rhythm method” of the 1950s. The often maligned rhythm method works well for women with regular menstrual cycles, but many women do not have regular cycles all the time, which contributed to its higher failure rate.
Platte said that current NFP methods are scientifically proven to have the same effectiveness in avoiding pregnancy as oral contraception. NFP methods observe natural indicators (biomarkers) of fertility, such as the presence of cervical mucus, cervical changes, and basal temperature changes.
Sterilization is now a common form of contraception even among Catholic couples, Platte said. He argues against it as a doctor because it destroys a functioning organ system that was working as God planned it to work.
Nicole Tingler said that she had never heard of NFP until she was preparing for marriage. She and her husband, Kris, attended classes at St. Mary Help of Christians Church and their initial skepticism was put to rest.
“It is encouraging to be around other couples who practice NFP and support what you are doing,” she said.
John Spears and his wife, Erin, said that they have been practicing NFP for 10 years.
“It really makes you talk more with each other than just ‘how is your day,’” he said.
Erin said that it has helped strengthen their marriage, and agreed that it has kept the doors of communication open.
A recent study at the University of Chicago showed that less than 5 percent of married couples who practice NFP get divorced while the national average for divorce is near 50 percent.
“The church teaches us Natural Family Planning so that we can exercise responsible parenthood using morally good means,” Father Habiger said. “Trust in God, not the pill. The pill attempts to avoid real challenges; it lures us into thinking that there is no need for making sacrifice.
“NFP is exactly what our times need,” he said. “It is much more than a method. It is spirituality, a way of living. It builds good marriages, loving spouses, and healthy, happy families.”