Colorado Springs, Colorado
July 2, 1998
My brothers and sisters,
May I begin by thanking the Couple to Couple League, John and Sheila Kippley, their collaborators, and all who have made this conference possible. I deeply appreciate your invitation to me and regret that I could not be present. I thank you for the opportunity to have this message presented, by which I want to encourage all of you in the critically important work you do.
It is a pleasure for me to send as my representative to your Conference, and as the presenter of my message, Rev. Frank Pavone, who now serves as one of our officials here at the Pontifical Council for the Family. Certainly, many of you have met and come to know him through his service as National Director of Priests for Life.
Many of you are teachers of the natural methods of fertility regulation. Others have various responsibilities in other aspects of the very important cause of authentic education in human sexuality, and of the cause of the defense of human life. I thank you for your perseverance in this mission, and intend to reflect with you on a few of the key moral and pastoral aspects of these important apostolates.
This is, furthermore, a particularly appropriate time to make these reflections. As we approach the New Millennium, we are in the current year called to foster our devotion to the Holy Spirit. Not only is He the Lord and Giver of Life, but He is the One who enables us to run in the path of the commandments and in the life of virtue. He it is who grants us an understanding of both the truths of faith and the created realities that surround us, including the reality of human sexuality.
Moreover, in this very month we reach the Thirtieth anniversary of the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae. This document was a gift offered to the Church by Pope Paul VI, in defense of the truth and dignity of love. He kept before him, above all other considerations, the will of God, who desires the integral good of the family. Not only is there a tremendous benefit to going back and re-reading this prophetic teaching, but we live in an era of the Church in which there has never been a larger and richer body of papal teaching on the critical themes of human love, marriage, and life than we have under the leadership of Pope John Paul II. It is a constant commitment of the Pontifical Council for the Family, which this Pope established, to promote those teachings with clarity and to foster their practical application.
Moral Foundations of Teaching NFP
There are two basic truths which everyone has to acknowledge in his or her life on earth. The first is, "There is a God." The second is, "It isn’t me." The regulation of one’s fertility is one of the most concrete aspects of life in which one has to answer the ultimate question of who God is.
If human life is sacred, then the sources of human life deserve all the respect due to a gift of God. A restoration of the sense of the dignity of the human person, and a recovery of the reverence due to life, require a rediscovery of the sacredness and reverence which belong to human sexuality and human fertility. No discussion of natural methods of regulating fertility will make any sense without grasping this wider context of reverence and of submission to the God to whom life and sexuality belong.
When most people hear about "Natural family planning," they think primarily of a method of avoiding children, whether they properly understand the method or not. Yet Natural family planning is more about the context than about the methodology. It is ultimately more about what fertility means than about how to achieve or avoid pregnancy. regulate it. Natural family planning involves accepting an entire worldview of who the human person is, what sexuality is, and how God fits into the whole scene. The better we understand this basis of NFP, the more effectively we will help our people distinguish it from contraception, and the more we will motivate them to the life of virtue on which NFP is based.
Unlike contraception, natural regulation of fertility requires a life of virtue. The couple, who can say yes to sexual union, can also say no. By their ability to say no, furthermore, their yes is all the more meaningful. Their sexual union is more free. It is not an inevitable response to an urge, but rather an aspect of a life of union in which affection finds numerous different modes of expression. NFP presumes that in order to give yourself away, you need to possess yourself first. This self-possession, furthermore, is mutual. The regulation of fertility is not something that one spouse does without the involvement or knowledge of the other. There is, instead, a communication and joint decision making. There is a constant reaffirmation that the other person is never to be reduced to a mere object of pleasure. As a result of living their self-giving, and their open communication, there can be a deeper and more secure experience of marital union.
Two extremes of thought are encountered today regarding the planning of one’s family. First, and by far more common, is the idea that the couple are to have full control over whether and how many children they will have. This is a view that leaves little or no room for God in the process of the generation of new human life. It is a view which looks only at oneself, one’s circumstances, and the methods by which one can best control those circumstances. In the end, it is an extremely lonely view of life.
On the other hand, we hear in some circles the idea that we are not permitted to plan in any way, shape, or form, the number and spacing of our children. This is a view which holds that trust in God means that couples should take no account whatsoever of the circumstances which impact their ability to accept and raise more children, and should simply proceed in a manner which takes whatever will come. In such a view, methods of Natural Family Planning are seen as a compromise of that trust in God.
The teaching of the Church is in the middle. As the Second Vatican Council taught in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), the mission of transmitting human life "involves the fulfillment of their role with a sense of human and Christian responsibility and the formation of correct judgments through docile respect for God and common reflection and effort; it also involves a consideration of their own good and the good of their children already born or yet to come, an ability to read the signs of the times and of their own situation on the material and spiritual level, and, finally, an estimation of the good of the family, of society, and of the Church. It is the married couple themselves who must in the last analysis arrive at these judgments before God" (GS 50). These decisions, furthermore, "ought to be conformed to the law of God in the light of the teaching authority of the Church, which is the authentic interpreter of divine law" (GS 50).
Conforming to the moral law means, concretely, that the couple respect the meaning of sexual union, a meaning that the couple does not invent, but rather discovers already in the act. It speaks a language put there by the Creator. It is no accident that the same act whereby man and woman physically express their deepest union with each other is also the act that gives rise to new life. The power of this union to give new life must never be deliberately destroyed or frustrated. The couple must always be open to life, not as an element added on to the unitive dimension, but as a very aspect of the totality of that union! Some will ask whether NFP is just another way to be closed to life. It could be, if seen as just a method in the service of a decision not to be bothered by children. But when one has a proper openness to life, yet in particular instances judges that it is not time for a child, the difference between NFP and contraception is that in NFP, God closes the door, whereas in contraception, the individual closes the door. NFP, because it recognizes that we may not, on our own authority, deprive sexual union of its life-giving capacity, respectfully steps back from that act of union altogether during the days when the woman is fertile. Moreover, the methodology of NFP can also be used precisely in order to conceive children. A contraceptive mentality could abuse the natural methods, but is not intrinsically connected to them.
There are two aspects which we always need to give attention to. The first regards the legitimacy of the use of the natural methods in response to the size of one’s family. It is the response to this question: How many children can we bear and educate, with a generous attitude? The second aspect is to consider that natural methods not simply as methods but as a learning experience in the meaning of love as mutual self-giving.
Regarding the first aspect, we must keep in mind that the decision to use these methods is conditioned by the presence of proper reasons which motivate one to desire the spacing of children. The reasons, therefore, cannot be egoism, hedonism, or the desire to put down the cross in order to enjoy life in other ways. The reason cannot be a fear of life, of motherhood, or of fatherhood. Such a fear would result in an obscuring of one of the essential ends and goods of conjugal love, namely, that it must always be open to life.
The second aspect, which sees the natural methods as a pedagogy of growth in reverent love, becomes a "school of humanity" for the spouses themselves. This is the aspect of tenderness, of knowing how to wait, of knowing how to guide human instincts toward a type of love which respects the woman rather than dominates her.
Each of these aspects, therefore, helps one see the motives for going beyond a contraceptive mentality. When total self-giving is not governed by a freedom which is joined to truth and moral principles, conjugal love is wounded and suffers profound setbacks. This process ends up with the denial of love, which is then exchanged for a situation in which the principle of pleasure makes one forget all the rest.
The Pastoral Context
It is crucial that we make people aware of the natural methods, and incorporate them into programs of preparation for marriage. If we do not, then the Church’s unchangeable teaching about the evils of contraception and abortion will seem to put people into unrealistic dilemmas. When people raise questions about legitimate situations where medically, socially, or financially, a pregnancy is not advisable, there will be a big unanswered question in their minds: What does one do? The promotion of natural methods can also be a concrete area where we might find some allies who would not necessarily agree with our teachings about the alternatives.
In some parishes, couples receiving the sacrament of marriage are required to take an introductory course on the natural methods, which really only involved two instructional sessions. At first, many of them do not understand why they are being asked to do this, but having done it, experience shows they do not regret the new knowledge they have gained.
The Church has strongly encouraged such teaching. For example, in Familiaris Consortio we read, "…the Church …cannot fail to call with renewed vigour on the responsibility of all – doctors, experts, marriage counsellors, teachers, and married couples – who can actually help married people to live their love with respect for the structure and finalities of the conjugal act which expresses that love. This implies a broader, more decisive and more systematic effort to make the natural methods of regulating fertility known, respected, and applied" (FC 35).
More recently, the Holy Father stated in Evangelium Vitae, "In its true meaning, responsible procreation requires couples to be obedient to the Lord’s call and to act as faithful interpreters of his plan. This happens when the family is generously open to new lives and when couples maintain an attitude of openness and service to life even if, for serious reasons and in respect for the moral law, they choose to avoid a new birth for the time being or indefinitely. The moral law obliges them in every case to control the impulse of instinct and passion, and to respect the biological laws inscribed in their person. It is precisely this respect which makes legitimate, at the service of responsible procreation, the use of natural methods of regulating fertility. From the scientific point of view, these methods are becoming more and more accurate and make it possible in practice to make choices in harmony with moral values. An honest appraisal of their effectiveness should dispel certain prejudices which are still widely held and should convince married couples as well as health care and social workers of the importance of proper training in this area. The church is grateful to those who, with personal sacrifice and often unacknowledged dedication, devote themselves to the study and spread of these methods as well to the promotion of education in the moral values which they presuppose" (EV n.97).
The Pontifical Council for the Family also encourages such teaching in the 1996 document on marriage preparation. The Council also held a conference in Rome in 1992 on the natural methods, and the proceedings of that conference are available in book form.
Our parishes need people like you who can both teach other couples the methods of Natural Family Planning and be examples of the virtue it demands and the joy it brings. The relationship between the teaching and learning couples needs to go well beyond the instructional sessions. It should be a real relationship of trust, so that when questions or problems arise, the couple starting out with these methods do not feel alone. There is benefit, furthermore, in the interaction of various natural family planning movements with the persons involved in the pro-life movements.
A careful training in the technical reliability of these methods can give couples increased confidence in the methods. Yet pastorally, we need to be aware that often the problem our people face is not a lack of confidence in the method, but a lack of confidence in themselves. They may not feel ready for the virtues which the natural methods involve. We are ambassadors for Christ, calling our people to rise above their weaknesses by the grace available to them in prayer, in the sacraments, and in a life lived in the presence of God. Training in the natural methods involves so much more than the technical knowledge. It requires our presence, as witnesses to the Risen Christ, telling our people, Be Not Afraid. We tell them not to be afraid of the fears that may tempt them to resort to an attack on their own fertility. We tell them not to be afraid of the communication with their spouse that they perhaps regard as impossible. We tell them not to be afraid of marital chastity, and the demands it makes. We tell them they are never alone.
A Growing Awareness about Contraception
As you carry out this work, you are no doubt aware of the fact that among pro-life associations here in the United States – both those that are Catholic and those that are not – there is a growing rediscovery of the need to teach the moral truth regarding contraception. (Here I refer to contraception properly so called. In the case of abortifacients, as you know, we have what appears to be contraception but in reality is abortion.) Although so many in our society do not even have the slightest conflict regarding whether or not contraception is wrong, we have no option but to faithfully point out not only that it violates the moral law and the marriage covenant, but that it is an intrinsic evil which no circumstances can justify. Saying this, of course, does not mean this is a negative message. On the contrary, it is a very positive message, because it shows how seriously the Church regards the totality of the self-giving promised in the covenant of marriage.
The Holy Father points out in Evangelium Vitae what so many of you can observe in the course of your work with so many people, namely, that contraception leads to abortion. How easy it is for people to look at the Church and say, "I don’t understand. If you want to eliminate abortion, why is it that you also oppose the use of contraception? More contraception will reduce the number of abortions."
The answer, of course, is twofold. On a practical level, it just doesn’t work that way. Nations which open the way to contraception invariably end up doing the same with abortion, which provides a backup to failed contraception.
On a moral level, furthermore, our teachings are not based on consequences, but on the truth about human sexuality. We can go further and say that we need to probe the roots of a proper anthropology, that is, a true vision of man, of woman, and of the family. Saying no to life after it is conceived and saying no to life before it is conceived both presuppose what is not true, namely, that we are the final arbiters of human life. The truth which forms the foundation for the Church’s teachings against contraception, sterilization, abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia is the truth that God alone has absolute dominion over human life. It is highly consistent, therefore, to oppose all these evils at the same time.
It is also necessary, though, to make the proper distinctions, as the Holy Father does in Evangelium Vitae when he says, "Certainly, from the moral point of view contraception and abortion are specifically different evils: the former contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love, while the latter destroys the life of a human being; the former is opposed to the virtue of chastity in marriage, the latter is opposed to the virtue of justice and directly violates the divine commandment ‘You shall not kill’" (EV 13). These differences between contraception and abortion, which are "differences of nature and moral gravity," are useful to bear in mind, lest those to whom we present our teaching misunderstand our opposition to both of these evils. Arguments used to support the destruction of the child often run along the lines of How can you bring this child into the world in circumstances of poverty, disease, abuse, or a medical threat to the mother? As we have already pointed out, these can be legitimate reasons not to have another child (in which case one can resort to the natural methods); but there can never be legitimate reasons to kill a child. The reason it is wrong to abort is not because we are obliged to bring another child into the world, but because another child is already in the world and we are obliged not to throw her out of the world. We enter here into a realm which is much broader than that of sexual morality.
The Education of the Young
We are all aware of the obligations we have to the young in regard to teaching these truths about human life and love. As you well know, parents have the primary responsibility in this regard, a fact which the Pontifical Council for the Family reaffirmed in 1995 with the document The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality. May I take this occasion to reaffirm the importance of that document and the sincere hope that parents throughout the nation will experience the support and assistance of the Church in carrying out their responsibilities.
One of the ways that such assistance can be given to parents is mentioned in Chapter 8 of the document, that is, the provision of "valid material, specifically prepared for parents in conformity with the principles" set forth in the document. In other words, if parents find their task difficult, the answer is not for them to abdicate it, or to entrust it to others in a manner in which they pay no attention to what is taught to the child. Instead, the answer is to provide the parents themselves with the tools and support they need to be the first and best educators of their children in the ways of faith and virtue. The document does not envision parents as isolated islands, but rather calls on them to "cultivate a cordial and active relationship with other persons who can help them"(n.148). Those who do help them, moreover, must never forget the parents’ own inalienable rights.
I referred at the outset to the fact that we are approaching the new Millennium. This moment in history, as we well know, is marked by an urgent need to defend the family and the most innocent human lives. The very future of human civilization depends on this.
As one expression of the Church’s concern in this regard, and as a call and encouragement to all of us to embrace this apostolate anew, the Pontifical Council for the Family will hold the Third World Meeting of the Holy Father with Families in Rome in the Fall of the Jubilee Year 2000. This encounter, marked by a Theological-Pastoral Congress, by a celebration of the Word of God and festive praise with the Successor of Peter, and by a Papal Eucharistic Liturgy, is a moment of great grace which can serve to deepen understanding, commitment, and unity among those who work for the cause of life and family. Such was the case with the previous two encounters, the first held in Rome in the International Year of the Family (1994), and the second held just last year in Rio de Janeiro. It is my fervent hope that many of you, joined by many others throughout the United States, will be able to make this pilgrimage of faith to Rome in the year 2000, to gather in prayer with other families from around the world.
Thank you again for your valuable work. Take to heart the counsel of our Lord, "Do not let your hearts be troubled…" Propose the truth with a serenity and joy rooted in the sure knowledge that such truth has a greater power than error, no matter how skillfully or loudly that error may be put forth. May that serenity and joy fill you, your families, and all those to whom you minister.
Printed with permission from Priests for Life.