Address to the National Convention
of the Couple to Couple League
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
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
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
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
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
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