Natural Family Planning: Nature's Way - God's Way

In Search of God's Design

What is the meaning of "theological" reflection on the problem of the regulation of birth?

The answer can be found in these words of the Council: "The People of God believes that it is led by the Spirit of the Lord who fills the whole world. Moved by that faith it tries to discern in the events, the needs, and the longings which it shares with other men of our time, what may be genuine signs of the presence or of the purpose of God. For faith throws a new light on all things and makes known the full ideal which God has set for man, thus guiding the mind towards solutions that are fully human" (GS, 11).

Among the current problems of mankind, often so difficult and acute, are those concerning the regulation of birth. Now, the proper role of theology Is to search for "God's design," to discover "God's intentions" with regard to man and his problems. This design is "impressed" in man himself, who has been created in God's image in his basic structure and in his inmost dynamics; a design that is "expressed," that is, revealed by the light of faith and of human reason. Thus the "discernment" of the divine design and intentions for man takes place "in the light of the Gospel and of human experience" (GS, 46).

Theological reflection makes reference, then, to the "new light" of Christian faith, that is, to the written Word of God, transmitted and authentically interpreted by the "living teaching office of the Church alone" (DV, 10). It thus arrives at the "ultimate truth" on man and his problems. In fact, "the most perfect answer to these questionings is to be found in God alone, who created man in His own image and redeemed him from sin; and this answer is given in the revelation of Christ His Son who became man. Whoever follows Christ the perfect man becomes himself more a man" (GS, 41).

In this sense theological reflection can and must remain "human" reflection. Hence, a second reference essential to theology is to the light of human experience, namely, to the discernment of human values and exigencies by right reason and by wisdom.

On this level theology, even when dealing with the particular problem of the regulation of birth, must be attentive to the witness of married life as experienced by so many married couples who, with all sincerity and honesty of purpose, are trying to interpret and to practice responsible fruitful love. No one can deny that there do exist numerous couples who believe in the Christian teaching on sexuality and who embody it in their daily lives. Such couples have a profound insight into the singular service which the encyclical Humanae Vitae of Paul VI has rendered and continues to render in promoting the human authenticity and perfection of their conjugal love.

Paul VI manifested the feeling of hope which accompanied him in the "laborious redaction" of the encyclical, in particular the hope he placed in Christian spouses: ". . . and finally the hope that Christian spouses will be the ones to understand how Our words, however severe and difficult they may sound, are meant to interpret the authenticity of their love, a love which is called to transform itself in imitation of Christ's love for His mystical spouse, the Church" (Allocution, July 31, 1968).

As time goes on, hope produces its fruit. Many couples, in reading the deep exigencies rooted in their mutual and total giving, "admit" that their "real" will does not seek "contraception," but rather tends to "follow" the logic of "nature." Other couples "perceive by intuition" that conjugal love, when sought in all the richness of its meanings, cannot express itself in diverse and contrasting forms of sexual behavior. Does not the genuineness of love become falsified by actions that rob it of some of its essential meanings? There are still other spouses who are more than ever convinced that man's control over the world of things and over his very body must have "limits," unless he chooses to suffer the counterblow of antiecological situations, even in the area of artificial contraception. And so there are spouses, sensitive to the social dimension of problems, who have by now become "detoxified" of the neurotic fear of an unrestrainable population growth and are consequently coming to rediscover the value of a large family. There is, too, the increasing awareness that opening the door to contraception means, speaking realistically, opening the door to other no less serious moral disorders: the connection between contraception and abortion cannot be overlooked or in any way underestimated.

Over and beyond the reasons just mentioned, this growing trend on the part of many couples towards natural family planning can also be explained by the increasing parallel developments of science converging on this problem. Now, even the data of science cannot but attract the interest of theological reflection, not only because the human sciences can in their own way uncover some lineaments of God's design for man, but also because by their results they can testify, as the Church points out, that "there can be no conflict between the divine laws governing the transmission of life and the fostering of authentic married love" (GS, 51; HV, 24). It is in this latter sense that Paul VI declared on the tenth anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae: "It seems to us that the decade that has already passed since its promulgation is long enough to evaluate better, after the confirmations received from the most rigorous science, the import of the decisions we made it that time 'coram Domino' . . ." (Allocution to Cardinals, June 23, 197~).

But theological reflection shows its originality by going to the root of human problems. The role of theology is to throw light on the "mystery of man" and of his most high calling beginning with and in relation to the "mystery of the Word Incarnate" (cf. GS, 22). This holds true for every human problem, even for the specific problem of conjugal love and responsible fecundity. The conciliar statement, placed at the conclusion of the discourse on responsible fruitful love, reveals the problem in its deepest meaning: "Let all be convinced that human life and its transmission are realities whose meaning is not limited by the horizons of this life only: their true evaluation and full meaning can only be understood in reference to man's eternal destiny" (GS, 51).

The Magisterium as authoritative service for the faith of the People Of God

An essential element of theological reflection is its reference to the Church Magisterium. This applies also to the problem of the regulation of birth, concerning which the Church, as we know, has a "constant and firm" doctrine, which was recently expressed not only in the Second Vatican Council, but also in a more complete and organic form and "with a more accurate formulation," in the encyclical Humanae Vitae of July 25, 1968.

For the Catholic there is no doubt about the legitimacy of the Magisterium's intervention in this area: "No believer will wish to deny that the teaching authority of the Church is competent to interpret even the natural moral law. It is, in fact, indisputable, as our predecessors have many times declared, that Jesus Christ, when communicating to Peter and to the Apostles His authority and sending them to teach all nations His commandments, constituted them as guardians and authentic interpreters of all the moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the Gospel, but also of the natural law, which is also an expression of the will of God, the faithful fulfillment of which is equally necessary for salvation" (HV, 4).

One who wishes to grasp the profound meaning of the Church Magisterium must interpret it in a specifically "theological" key. This is the only key which, while placing in a clear light the unmistakable originality of the Magisterium in comparison with other human forms of teaching and authority, makes it possible to overcome diluted and/or distorted interpretations of sociological, juristic or psychological coinage. In fact, only within the "mystery of the Church," sharing in the Spirit of the "prophetic" mission of Jesus Christ, can the proper nature of the Magisterium be understood as authoritative service for the faith of the People of God.

The Magisterium is a service in the sense of a ministry with which the Spirit endows the Church. It expresses itself in the responsibility of announcing the saving Gospel to all, and hence of spreading and defending the faith, and of serving Jesus Christ and, in Him, man himself by enlightening him in his vocation and guiding him in the accomplishment of his mission. This service, however, is not some sort of general service for the faith of the Church; its distinctive trait is that of being ex auctoritate Christi: it actuates itself "in the name of the Lord," that is, it shares in a particular way in the authority and mission of Jesus, the great Prophet (Lk 7, 6).

The magisterium is an authoritative service for the faith; to be more precise, for the faith considered in all its dynamic unfolding: "faith which expresses itself through love" (Gal 5, 6), "faith which is destined to inform thinking and direct conduct" (LG 25). In this sense there is not only a dogmatic magisterium; there is also in the Church a specifically moral magisterium, one that is ordained to enable the faithful to live according to "the law of the spirit in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8, 2), even by the proposal of norms concerning the various areas of life, including also the area of marriage and its values and obligations.

In its "moral" aspect the Church Magisterium more explicitly stresses its twofold and inseparable service for the good of man and for his growth in Christ: namely, the service of truth announced in its purity and integrity, and the service of the person - in this case the spouses - to help them live according to truth. In this sense Paul VI writes: "Our words would not be an adequate expression of the thought and solicitude of the Church, Mother and Teacher of all peoples, if, after having recalled men to the observance and respect of the divine law regarding matrimony, we did not strengthen them in the path of honest regulation of birth, even amid the difficult conditions which today afflict families and peoples. The Church, in fact, cannot have a different conduct towards men than that of the Redeemer: She knows their weaknesses, has compassion on the crowd, receives sinners; but she cannot renounce the teaching of the law which is, in reality, that law proper to a human life restored to its original truth and conducted by the Spirit of God" (HV 19).

The two roles just mentioned are co-essential to the intervention of the Church. They belong, in fact, to the Church - as possibility and responsibility - by reason of her constitutive bond with Jesus Christ, who "was indeed intransigent with evil, but merciful towards individuals" (HV 29). Furthermore, just as truth constitutes the supreme good to which the person is called, so does the person find the very meaning of its value by walking towards the truth.

In the specific case of the regulation of birth the encyclical Humanae vitae was followed, in the spirit of "collegiality" and at the explicit request of Paul VI, by a series of statements, notes, and comments addressed by the various Conferences of Bishops throughout the world to their respective Churches. As a result many questions and spirited discussions arose concerning the interpretation of the episcopal documents both in themselves and in relation to one another (with regard to their magisterial value and their precise content) and to the encyclical. Also discussed was the "theological" qualification of the doctrine of Humanae Vitae (see the article by M. Zalba).

What cannot honestly be called into doubt is, on the one hand, the feeling expressed by Paul VI: "Never have We felt the burden of Our office more keenly than at this juncture ... We have noticed the inadequacy of Our poor person to the formidable apostolic obligation of making a pronouncement on this matter ... and We have had no doubt about Our duty to formulate Our judgment in the terms expressed in the present encyclical . . . We have endeavored to study it (the theme of the encyclical) and to expound it with the truth and charity that this theme demanded of Our teaching office and Our ministry . . ." (Allocution, July 31, 1968). On the other hand, there can be no doubt about the grave moral duty incumbent on all, both pastors and the faithful, of giving "the example of loyal internal and external obedience to the teaching authority of the Church," obedience which "obliges not only because of the reasons adduced, but rather because of the light of the Holy Spirit, which is given in a particular way to the pastors of the Church, in order that they may illustrate the truth" (HV 28; cf. LG 25).

In the service of "homo humanus"

The Church's position is well known - or ought to be - on conjugal morality in general and on the regulation of fertility in particular: "In the light of the Gospel and of human experience," the Magisterium teaches that "every conjugal act must remain open to the transmission of life" (HV 11). Consequently, the Magisterium condemns "contraception" as moral disorder and declares that "it is licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only" (HV 16).

The Church is convinced that she is thus placing herself at the service of man: "In defending conjugal morals in their integral wholeness, the Church knows that she contributes towards the establishment of a truly human civilization" (HV 18). This conviction arises and develops by reason of the very close bond which the Church perceives between sexuality and the human person. Here we are touching on a decisive point: only in the context of an exact and profound concept of man can we understand the moral position of the Church on responsible fruitful love. Anthropology commands ethics if the latter translates into terms of personal "responsibility" the objective "meanings" impressed in man's very being.

This is the crucial point from which the Church makes and continues to make its moves. Paul VI begins the presentation of the "doctrinal principles" of conjugal ethics with the following words: "The problem of birth, like every other problem regarding human life, is to be considered, beyond partial perspectives - whether of the biological or psychological, demographic or sociological orders - in the light of an integral vision of man and of his vocation, not only his natural and earthly, but also his supernatural and eternal vocation" (HV 7).

When read attentively, this dense and comprehensive text of the encyclical reveals in particular three fundamental dimensions of the anthropology professed by the Church and which we can qualify as integral, vocational, and existential. This anthropology provides the coordinates which justify and call for the Christian moral response to the problem of the regulation of birth in the terms expressed by the encyclical.

The Church professes, above all, an integral anthropology, whereby man - in his constitutive structure - is a unitarian whole, a unitotality of body and spirit. One would include here the theme of the sexual corporality of man: precisely because it belongs to man. Sexuality not only is not reducible to the body (physical genitality), but, even when it involves the body, it involves it as a human body, that is, as the person itself in its giving of itself. In this way, "human" sexuality is by no means an "object" or a "thing" for man to "use" or "manipulate"; it is instead man himself as a "subject" who can and must accept and live his sexuality with a sense of responsibility.

We can now grasp the criterion that distinguishes and sets in opposition, on an objective level, artificial birth control and natural regulation of birth: the dilemma exists between the "thing" concept and the "personalist" concept of the human body, that is, between the body as object (in the first case) and the body as subject (in the second case).

In integral anthropology there emerges a first connotation of the sexual conjugal experience: the opus conjugale is not merely an opus naturals in terms of a merely biophysiological act, but rather an opus personale, that is, an expression and actualization of man in his unitotality of body and spirit (see article by C. Caffarra). But what is the "meaning" of the opus personale? The answer is given by another fundamental dimension of anthropology: the vocational dimension, whereby man, in his radical meaning, is called by God and enabled and obligated to respond to Him. In truth, "God's design" does not reach man from the outside, but is impressed in a living way in man's very being, it is stamped in his structure, it is enmeshed in his dynamics: these are the "meanings" with which the Creator enriches the work of His hands. But insofar as it reaches man, an intelligent and free being, this design takes the shape of a "vocation," as a call addressed to man to accept this design in a conscious and responsible manner. The "meanings" become the "tasks" entrusted to man to be conscientiously and responsibly carried out by him, as one who with respect to God becomes a "minister" enabled and obligated to make God's design "his own." This truth achieves extraordinary depth and richness of expression in the "identity" of man as imago Del (cf. Gn 1, 27).

Vocational anthropology has an immediate impact on conjugal ethics. In fact, the fundamental "meaning" of the sexuality of man and woman is love; more precisely, love which finds in God its source and goal and, by that very fact, its norm: Since the love of God is inseparably connected with the gift of life, human sexuality also is destined to be in service of love which makes the two "one flesh" (cf. Gn 2, 24) and disposes them for the gift of new life. "God has willed to make spouses sharers in His love: in the personal love which He has for each one of us and by which He calls them to help each other and to give themselves to each other in order to achieve the fullness of their personal lives; sharers also in the love which He bears for mankind and for all His children and by which He desires to multiply the children of men in order to make them sharers in His life and in His eternal happiness. Born of the creative and paternal love of God, marriage finds in human love, corresponding to the design and will of God, the fundamental law of its moral value" (Paul VI, Allocution to the Congress of Italian Women, February 12, 1966).

One can now perceive the ultimate meaning of the conjugal act: it is specifically an opus personale inasmuch as it is an opus procreationis, or, if we may so express it, an opus con-creationis, in which and by which the spouses co-operate "with the love of the Creator and Saviour, who through them will increase and enrich His family from day to day" (GS, 50). This intrinsic meaning of the conjugal act calls for spouses to be "dependent" on God, to "measure up" to His design, to "interpret it faithfully.,, Such dependence is exercised by "respect" for God's creation, that is, for the structure and dynamics of human sexuality. In other words, such dependence is exercised when man and woman fulfill themselves as "images of God," which means that they love themselves mutually, give life to other persons, and do not arbitrarily separate love and the gift of life, since God is love giving life, a life that is never given without love.

Once again there emerges the essential diversity, indeed the opposition, between artificial birth control and the natural regulation of fecundity: in the first case man sets himself up as "lord" of creation by separating the two inseparable meanings of the conjugal act - the unitive and the procreative meanings - and destroying the capacity for transmitting life; in the second case man acknowledges himself to be the servant" of creation by respecting it in its meanings (see the article by G. Martelet). Vocational anthropology explains why "an act of mutual Jove which is detrimental to the faculty of propagating life which God the Creator has implanted in it according to special laws, is in contradiction to both the divine plan, according to whose norm matrimony has been instituted, and the will of the Author of human life. " It also explains why "to use this divine gift destroying, even if partially, its meaning and its purpose is to contradict the nature both of man and of woman and of their most intimate relationship, and therefore it is to contradict also the plan of God and His will. On the other hand, to make use of the gift of conjugal love while respecting the laws of the generative process means to acknowledge oneself not to be the arbiter of the sources of human life, but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator" (HV 13).

In referring to Paul VI speaking of man's "not only natural and earthly, but also supernatural and eternal vocation," we are emphasizing also the existential dimension of the anthropology professed by the Church. In other words, we mean to refer to man precisely as he is situated in history, in a history that unfolds according to the threefold phase of the "good" creation on the part of God, the condition of conflict linked with man's sin, and salvation bestowed by Jesus Christ and His Spirit. Even sexuality, like the other values and the other tasks of the person, is deeply "involved" in this history of creation, sin, and grace. Thus are explained the original and indestructible goodness of the sexuality of man and woman, the ambiguity of the "gift of love" threatened by egoism and "hardness of heart," and the "newness" bestowed on human sexuality by salvation in Christ.

It is this that gives rise to the "realism" and "hope" with which the Church proclaims sexual morality. Concretely and in relation to conjugal morality the following words of Paul VI addressed to spouses now take on meaning: "The Church, while teaching imprescriptible demands of the divine law, announces the tidings of salvation, and by means of the sacraments opens up the paths of grace, which makes man a new creature, capable of corresponding with love and true freedom to the design of his Creator and Saviour, and of finding the yoke of Christ to be sweet" (HV 25).

From what has been said, there follows the effect that anthropology has on the problems of conjugal morality, not only in its fundamental values of love and fecundity, but also in the particular area of "how" to regulate birth, in the area, that is, of methods and means of regulating birth (see article by D. Tettamanzi). Thus we see justified the qualification of "intrinsic disorder" attached to contraception, a qualification of something that is "unworthy of the human person" (HV 14) and that is "in opposition to the true good of man"(HV 18). This is the necessary corollary of the concept the Church has of sexuality and of its essential relation to the human person.

A journey towards freedom

It has already been pointed out that the Church has not only the task of proclaiming the ideal and proposing the norm of moral life, but she must also help man Concretely to achieve the ideal and to observe the norm.

And so we enter into the subjective area of existence of couples at grips with actuating the normative ideal of responsible fruitful love. In this area also we stress the "pedagogy of the Church" In its originality, its characteristic traits being indicated in the words of Paul V1 to priests: "To diminish In no way the saving teaching of Christ constitutes an eminent form of charity for souls. But this must ever be accompanied by patience and goodness, such as the Lord Himself gave example of in dealing with men. Having come not to condemn but to save, He was indeed intransigent with evil, but merciful towards individuals. In their difficulties, may married couples always find, in the words and in the heart of a priest, the echo of the voice and the love of the Redeemer" (HV 29).

The first basic pedagogical rule of the Church is that the spouses walk in truth" (I Jn 1, 7). This means that they should have the humility and the courage to call things by their name: order order, disorder disorder! Only on this condition does one become a servant of the truth that sets free, not its master. This means that the first step in moral honesty to be taken by spouses consists in admitting that, on the objective level, contraception is "moral disorder" and is not, nor can be, at the service of true and full conjugal love. This is precisely the meaning of the encyclical of Paul VI viewed in its historical moment: "since contraception was presented in the Church as a real right of love, or at least as behavior indifferent in itself, the encyclical had to deny the soundness of such thinking" (G. Martelet).

It is, then, with the light of this truth that conscience must be enlightened. It is certain that in his conscience man "finds himself alone with God" (GS 16), with a responsibility that is so personal that it can never be imposed by others or delegated to others; but it is a responsibility that cannot shrink from seeking and clinging to Truth by listening to the Word of God, in communion with brothers in the faith, in docility to the teaching office of the Church. Authentic "autonomy" of conscience is based on and sustained by "theonomy" (see article by B. Honings).

But the truth which the couples commit themselves to serve is a truth to be realized: the commitment to call things by their real name becomes genuine only if and to the extent that the spouses keep on their journey. Man is an existential being who becomes and develops day by day by a multiplicity of aims and efforts. Conjugal life too is a journey, marked by rhythms of growth. On this journey the spouses must not reduce the normative ideal to the measure of their own will, but they must lift themselves up to the goal set for them. We can apply to the moral norm of responsible fruitful love what John Paul II said to families on marriage in general: "If Christian marriage can be compared to a very high mountain that places the spouses in immediate proximity to God, one must admit that climbing it requires much time and much effort. But is this a reason for removing or lowering that summit?" (Kinshasa, May 3, 1980). It is a question of always starting over again, in an ongoing process of conversion and liberation: "Who does not know this? It is only little by little that the human being succeeds in ordering and integrating his multiple tendencies to the point where he can arrange them harmoniously in that virtue of conjugal chastity where the couple find their total human and Christian fulfillment .... The realization that one has not yet achieved interior freedom and is still subject to the impulses of passion, the discovery that one is almost incapable of respecting at the moment the moral law in so fundamental an area - all this naturally moves one to a reaction of sadness; yet that is the decisive moment when the Christian in his disorder, instead of abandoning himself to sterile and destructive revolt, proceeds in humility to the opening up of man before God, a sinner before the love of Christ the Saviour .... In the midst of the great Church this small Church then recognizes itself for what it truly is: a weak community, at times sinful and penitent but forgiven, on the march towards holiness, 'in the peace of God that surpasses all understanding (Phil 4, 7'" (Paul VI to the Equipes Notre-Dame, May 4, 1970).

To keep on the journey, the couple must possess certain conditions: no flower can germinate and sprout except in favorable soil. This holds true also for the moral life of spouses. Among these conditions must be mentioned in particular the virtue of conjugal chastity. The Council authoritatively affirms this when, after saying that spouses must "respect the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love," it concludes: "All this is possible only if the virtue of married chastity is seriously practiced" (GS 51). This is not only continence, it is also a guarantee and progress of authentic love (see the article by E. Hamel). Among the conditions, or rather, among the motivating principles of the moral life of spouses, one must always remember the grace of the sacrament of marriage: it is the "gift" of the Spirit of Christ, bestowed in the sacramental celebration, and it becomes the "commandment" of life for the spouses. And it is a "new" commandment, because it gives interior strength for the filial fulfillment of the will of the Father, sharing in the loving obedience of Christ. "The sacrament of marriage, by pouring out the gift of the Spirit which transforms betrothed love, becomes the new law of the Christian couple . . . . In this way Christian conjugal morality does not remain an external imposition, but it becomes an exigency of the life of grace, a fruit of the Spirit acting in the hearts of the spouses and guiding them to the freedom of the children of God" (Conference of Italian Bishops: Evangelization and the Sacrament of Marriage, June 20, 1975, 49). Thus, conjugal sexual morality finds its source in the sacramental gift of Christ and His Spirit: this is the reason for its "newness" and "originality."

The ministry of love and life

We have discussed spouses as ministers of God's design: this is a key idea of the entire encyclical Humanae Vitae, an idea which finds its most graphic and explicit declaration in the words addressed by Paul V1 to spouses: "Christian married couples, docile to the voice of God, must remember that their Christian vocation, which began at baptism, is further specified and reinforced by the sacrament of matrimony. By it husband and wife are strengthened and as it were consecrated for the faithful accomplishment of their proper duties, for the carrying out of their proper vocation even to perfection, and the Christian witness which is proper to them before the whole world" (HV 25).

It is in this light that one can perceive in depth the meaning of conjugal sexual morality proposed by the Church in the service of man. The passage just quoted recalls fundamental realities, interwoven with one another: the "ministry" of the spouses (their "duty," their "responsibility," their "task"), the "mystery" of Christian spouses (the "grace" given them by the sacrament), the "witness" they must give to the world. It is a manifold and diversified witness. But in a social and cultural context where sexuality tends to be lived as a "consumer item" in the service of a so-called love "disjoined" from the value of life, the task pointed out to spouses by Paul VI takes on the character of extreme actuality and urgency: "To them the Lord entrusts the task of making visible to men the holiness and sweetness of the law-which unites the mutual love of husband and wife with their co-operation with the love of God the author of human life" (HV 25).

In a certain sense, the real. encyclical on the right regulation of birth is not the one which Paul VI presented to the Church and mankind on July 25, 1968, but that which the spouses continue to "write" day by day and to "proclaim" by the life they lead: a life that becomes "Prophecy," a life that "accuses the world of sin and enlightens those who search for truth" (LG 3 5). It is the life made new by the gift of the Spirit. In this perspective the Church can repeat to the faithful and to the men of our day what the Apostle wrote to the Corinthians: "You are our letter, known and read by all men, written on your hearts. Clearly you are a letter written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh in the heart" (2 Cor 3, 2-3).

by Dionigi Tettamanzi

Translated by Fr. Paul Pavese, OSJ

> Theological Section
Spouses as Ministers of God's Design
D.Tettamanzi, Editor, Part 3
N.B. Note, May 2000: Father Dionigi Tettamanzi of 1980 has in the meantime become an Archbishop and Cardinal, and is sometimes mentioned as a papabile.

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