Here is the next installment of the series of articles we are posting on this blog in observance of “NFP week.” This article is particularly timely, not only in its connecting NFP with conversions and thus the “new evangelization,” but also in light of the fact that today marks the 39th anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae, the landmark encyclical letter by Pope Paul VI on contraception. Enjoy!
The Conversion Value of Natural Family Planning
John F. Kippley
Thirty-nine years ago, on July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI exercised his prophetic role and published Humanae Vitae, an encyclical that reaffirmed the Christian Tradition that it is objectively sinful to use unnatural forms of birth control. Those who had been arguing for several years against this teaching, which had also been reaffirmed by Pius XI in Casti Connubii in 1930, lashed out in unprecedented dissent. How dare the Pope not accept their theories! They won the initial battles, but they will lose the war because truth will eventually win out.
Ever since then, however, a great fear has cast a sickly hue over the pastoral work of the Church. This malady is simple to diagnose but difficult to cure. It can be stated this way: “We fear that if we teach that it is immoral to use unnatural forms of birth control, our parishioners will vote with their feet, the pews will be emptied, and how will we pay the bills?” So they didn’t teach the teaching of the Church regarding love, marriage, and human sexuality. As a result, Catholics by and large joined the contracepting masses, few had large families, the pews emptied anyway, and many churches closed.
There are two primary reasons that feed the fear of promulgating full Catholic teaching.
First, in recent years the educational ministries within the Church have generally failed to build faith in the Church as the Body of Christ. All too many Catholics have a liberal Protestant view of the Church as just a religious organization in which they feel comfortable. If it starts to preach something they find uncomfortable, they simply shop around for another church. And no matter what their church says officially, they think they can interpret their Bible to mean whatever they think it means. This mindset cannot fathom why Pope Benedict affirms full Catholic teaching as he did just recently in his affirmation that the Catholic Church is the one true Church established by Jesus Christ for the salvation of all mankind.
Catholic belief in the Church is simultaneously more demanding and more liberating. It is more demanding because it requires the believer to believe all that the Church teaches because it has been revealed by God who can neither deceive nor be deceived. It is more liberating because it frees the conscientious person from endlessly trying to figure out his own interpretation of the Bible or which of contradicting interpretations he thinks is correct.
And why should a person believe that the Catholic Church teaches with the authority of God—especially today? He needs to understand what Jesus Himself did to ensure that His teachings—including the divine truth about human love—would endure till He returns. So the question is really this: Why should a person believe that Christ Himself continues to teach in and through the Catholic Church that He established? The answer starts in the Bible, including some very important teachings at the Last Supper, and the rest is written in the pages of history.
Truth attracts people of good will. The fear that teaching the fullness of the truth will lose parishioners is realistic only when the local Church fails to teach the saving truth that it is Christ Himself who teaches in and through the Catholic Church, regardless of the sins of those who do not follow that teaching. (And it needs to be said occasionally that we don’t have as high a percentage of Judases as Jesus did in His band of Twelve.) The answer is simple: correct preaching and catechesis.
The second reason that feeds the fear that parishioners will vote with their feet is a widespread failure of parishes to teach the real content of Humanae Vitae and to provide the practical help of Natural Family Planning. As a result, some think that no matter what they do, they will have ten children in a dozen years, and others think they will almost never be able to engage in the marriage act if they do not want more children. This is a tremendously false picture, but it is fostered by the almost complete absence of relevant preaching and teaching at the parish level.
Conversions and reversions. On the other hand, the wonderful reality is that the truths reaffirmed by Humanae Vitae and the practice of Natural Family Planning attract those who want to live the truth about love—and there are many such couples. Repeatedly couples have borne witness to the fact that the practice of natural family planning was the starting point of their journey to the Church or back to the Church. I am convinced that the practice of marital chastity opens minds and hearts to the fact that it is Christ Himself who continues to teach the demands of love in and through His Church. In many cases, however, it is not just ecological breastfeeding or systematic NFP that has convinced couples; it is also the fact that they learned some of the reasons behind the teaching of Humanae Vitae.
In the early 80s, I received a letter informing me that the writer, his wife, and his family had entered the fullness of the Catholic Church. He described himself as having been a fundamentalist married to a Baptist. They had been practicing NFP because the wife did not want to use the Pill. He very reluctantly went along with this but only because he loved and respected his wife. One evening as he was waiting for dinner, he picked up an NFP newsletter, and something rang true. He remarked to his wife that there was a lot more to this NFP stuff than just mucus and temperatures; there were good reasons for it. She answered that she had thought there were and had been waiting for him, the more philosophical of the couple, to explain them to her. Then they figured that if the Catholic Church had it right on this one, they owed it to the Church to take a look at its other claims as well. In due time and with the grace of God, he notified me of the family’s entrance into full communion with the Catholic Church. Praise the Lord!
The names of Scott and Kimberly Hahn are well known in the Church today. Back in their Protestant seminary days, they found the book I had written about birth control—Birth Control and the Marriage Covenant—and found it persuasive. (The revised version is mentioned below.) More specifically, Kimberly got it from a fellow seminary student, a huge example of divine providence at work. When she shared it with Scott, he was almost too skeptical to open it, but the word “covenant” in the title was the ice-breaker. When he grasped the covenant-renewal concept of the marriage act, he threw the book across the room, for he had been comfortable with contraception.
Fortunately, he was and is a truth-seeker so he picked it back up, and the rest is history. They accepted the universal Christian Tradition against unnatural forms of birth control, a Tradition taught almost exclusively by the Catholic Church today, and acted accordingly. I believe that living this part of Catholic teaching gradually helped to open their hearts and minds to the fullness of the truth. The greatest joys I have had in the NFP movement have been the repeated affirmations that covenant-oriented NFP instruction helped couples undergo a conversion resulting in full communion with the Church, whether they started as Protestants, estranged or so-so Catholics, or seculars. Truth attracts and retains people of good will. That’s why it is necessary to preach, teach, and practice the truths affirmed by Humanae Vitae.
John F. Kippley is the president of NFP International. He is the author of Sex and the Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality (Ignatius, 2005); and Natural Family Planning: The Question-Answer Book, a short, easy-to-read, free, downloadable e-book available at www.NFPandmore.org. This website offers support for Humanae Vitae, ecological breastfeeding, and systematic NFP via articles, research, and how-to instruction.