On December 14, 1990, Pope John Paul II addressed a group taking a course on the Billings method of Natural Family Planning (NFP).
What follows is a translation of the Pope’s address from the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, English edition.
In giving you a heartfelt greeting, I wish to express my deep joy over this important initiative, sponsored by the Center for Studies and Research on Natural Regulation of Fertility of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart.
The course you are participating in seeks to train teachers who can teach families natural methods permitting truly responsible procreation, in accord with the moral doctrine which the Magisterium has constantly taught.
A description of this initiative’s aims is enough to show its relevance to the Church’s mission to the family.
In the apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, I reminded the bishops and faithful alike about the urgent need for “a broader, more decisive and systematic effort to make the natural methods for regulating fertility known, respected and applied.”
Church teaching about such a delicate and urgent issue in the life of spouses and society is often misunderstood and opposed because it is presented in an inadequate and unilateral fashion.
It stops at the negative judgment concerning contraception, which is always an intrinsically dishonest act; yet it rarely makes any effort to understand this norm in the light of “the total vision of the human person and vocation, which is not only natural and earthly, but also supernatural and eternal” (Humanae Vitae, 2).
In truth, only within the framework of responsibility for love and for life can the underlying reasons for procreation (Humanae Vitae, 14) be understood.
Only within the context of values such as these can spouses find the inspiration which allows them to overcome, with the help of God’s grace, the difficulties which they inevitably face when, under unfavourable social conditions and in an environment marked by readily available hedonism, they seek to follow a path which conforms to the Lord’s will.
It is only by deepening the Christian concept of this “responsibility for love and for life” that one can grasp the “difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle” (Familiaris Consortio, 32).
“Responsibility for love and for life!”
That expression reminds us of the greatness of the vocation of spouses, called to be free and conscious collaborators of the God who is love, who creates through love and calls to love. The term “responsibility” is therefore ethically decisive because in it is combined the dignity of the “gift” which is received and, on the other hand, the value of the “freedom” to which it is entrusted so that it might bear fruit.
The greater the gift, the greater the responsibility of the subject who freely accepts it.
And what gift is greater on the natural plane than the vocation of a man and woman to express faithful and indissoluble love which is open to the transmission of life?
In conjugal love and in transmitting life, the human being cannot forget his or her dignity as a person; it raises the natural order to a certain level, one which is no longer merely biological. That is why the Church teaches that responsibility for love is inseparable from responsibility for procreation.
The biological phenomenon of human reproduction, wherein the human person finds his or her beginnings, also has as its end the emergence of a new person, unique and unrepeatable, made in the image and likeness of God.
The dignity of the procreative act in which the interpersonal love of the spouses finds its culmination in the new person, in a son or daughter, emerges from that fact. That is why the Church teaches that openness to life in conjugal relations protects the very authenticity of the love relationship, saving it from the risk of descending to the level of mere utilitarian enjoyment.
Through this sense of responsibility for love and for life, God the Creator invites the spouses not to be passive operators, but rather “cooperators or almost interpreters” of his plan (Gaudium et Spes).
In fact, they are called, out of respect for the objective moral order established by God, to an obligatory discernment of the indications of God’s will concerning their family.
Thus, in relationship to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood will be able to be expressed “either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a large family, or by the decision, made for serious moral reasons and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time, or even for an indeterminate period, another birth” (Humanae Vitae, 10).
Today science offers the opportunity for precisely determining fertile and infertile periods in a woman’s body.
Couples can make good use of this knowledge to achieve several ends: not only to space or to limit the number of births, but also for choosing the most opportune moment under every point of view for procreation, or also to identify the periods of greater fertility in cases where conceiving has been difficult.
In applying this scientific knowledge to regulating fertility, technology in no way substitutes for the involvement of the persons and neither does it intervene by manipulating the nature of the relationship, as is the case with contraception in which the meaning of the conjugal act is deliberately separated from procreation.
To the contrary, in practicing natural methods science must always be joined with self-control, since, in using them, virtue – that perfection belonging specifically to the person – is necessarily a factor.
Thus we can say that periodic continence, practiced to regulate procreation in a natural way, requires a profound understanding of the person and of love.
In truth, that requires mutual listening and dialogue by spouses, attention and sensitivity for the other spouse and constant self-control. All of these are qualities which express real love for the person of the spouse for what he or she is, and not for what one may wish the other to be. The practice of natural methods requires personal growth by the spouses in a joint effort to strengthen their love.
This intrinsic connection between science and moral virtue constitutes the specific and morally qualifying element for recourse to natural methods.
It is a part of the complete integral training of teachers and of couples, and in it, it should be clear that what is of concern here is more than just simple ‘instruction’ divorced from the moral values proper to teaching people about love.
In short, it allows people to see that it is not possible to practise natural methods as a ‘licit’ variation on the decision to be closed to life, which would be substantially the same as that which inspires the decision to use contraceptives.
Only if there is a basic openness to fatherhood and motherhood, understood as collaboration with the Creator, does the use of natural means become an integrating part of the responsibility for love and life.
Sacred Scripture unveils for us the radiant fact of God who “is love” (1 Jn. 4:8) and who is a “lover of life” (Wis. 11:26).
Even amid difficulties and misunderstandings, never forget that the work to which you are devoted, dear brothers and sisters, is a service to love and to life in support of spouses who intend to live by God’s plan. Through this service, which merits the committed support of all pastors, you are giving a valid form of assistance to the Church’s mission.