By Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma, S.J.
NATURAL Family Planning has paradoxically been described as the “second best kept secret” of the Catholic Church (after its Social Teachings). In contrast to government programs that offer a value-neutral approach to all methods of family planning, the Catholic Church has consistently articulated its moral principles in advocating for Responsible Parenthood and Natural Family Planning. Based on actual results, however, NFP has remained the untried option. According to the latest surveys, less than one percent of Filipino couples are adopting modern NFP methods!
On the other hand, the pastoral experience of many priests and family life workers indicate that a growing number of couples today have three felt needs: (1) They want to plan their families in terms of family size and spacing of births; (2) They prefer natural family planning, if they are given adequate information on fertility awareness and NFP methods; and (3) They want to choose among NFP methods according to their own circumstances and preference. It is in this light that church communities, as well as government entities, are challenged to promote all recognized natural family planning methods today.
Before discussing the various NFP methods, however it would be good to examine the core values that underpin the Church’s advocacy for natural family planning—values that touch on the sacredness of human life, marriage, and the family. Four pastoral guidelines for All-NFP provide the framework for the local church’s values formation and the parameters for critical engagement with government and other groups.
I. We are Pro-Life
We uphold the dignity of human life from the moment of conception. We condemn abortion which is also proscribed by the Philippine Constitution. All-NFP is a proactive program that helps prevent the tragedy of unwanted pregnancies and recourse to abortion. It also provides an alternative to contraceptive methods that are considered as abortifacients.
The dignity of human life is directly linked to the dignity of the human person.
1) The human person is created in the image of God. “God created man in his image, in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). The biblical perspective states that man and woman have the same dignity and are of equal value.
God’s creative act takes place from the moment of conception: “You created every part of me; you put me together in my mother’s womb. When my bones were being formed, when I was growing there in secret, you knew that I was there – you saw me before I was born” (Psalm 139: 13,15,16).
2) The human person is created by God in unity of body and soul. The spiritual faculties of reason and free will are linked with all the bodily and sense faculties. The spiritual and immortal soul is the principle of unity of the human being, whereby it exists as a person.
Man is an embodied spirit. “It is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature” (CCC, 365).
3) The human person is open to transcendence: he is open to the infinite and to all created beings. Through his spiritual faculties of intellect and will, the human person reaches out to know the truth and to love and choose the good and the beautiful.
Despite his limitation in attaining his finite ends in this life, man tends towards total truth and the absolute good—i.e., union with God, or the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. What Christian philosophers call the Summum Bonum or the Beatific Vision is premised on the promise of the resurrection and eternal life. Pope John Paul II sums this up: “Human life is precious because it is a gift of God—and when God gives life, it is forever.”
4) The human person is endowed with a moral conscience that enables him to recognize the truth concerning good and evil. Man’s exercise of freedom and responsibility implies a reference to the natural moral law, of an objective and universal character, which is the foundation for all rights and duties. “Living a moral life bears witness to the dignity of the person” (CCC, 1706).
The dignity of the moral conscience as man’s “most secret core and sanctuary” enables the person to acknowledge that inner law which is fulfilled in the love of God and of one’s neighbor (GS, 16). Love of neighbor, in the language of the modern world, can be interpreted in terms of promoting and defending human rights. Fig. 2 locates the context of human rights and duties, understood as access to the means that enable a person to attain his natural and supernatural ends. In this light, human rights can be understood as moral claims, and duties as moral responsibilities.
5) The human person is essentially a social and relational being.
He is a being—with others in the world. He is a person among other persons, among equals—in the family, in the small community or in the larger society.
He is also a being-through-others in the world. He is born from the union of parents and grows up within the widening circle of relatives, teachers, and friends. He too is a being-for-others in the world, available in service to others, capable of loving others and being loved in return. He is called to enter into communion with others, and to forge bonds of solidarity for the common good.
In the web of relationships that surround him, the person learns to interact “horizontally” with other persons and society at large. He also deepens his “vertical” relationships with God as his Creator and Father as well as with the world of nature.
In the process, he also relates to himself as a self-project with an immensity of possibilities. He remains a subject, an “I” capable of self-understanding and self-determination. In this sense, as a center of consciousness and freedom, he exists as a unique and unrepeatable being (CSDC, 131).
6) The Christian view of the human person balances the mystery of sin with the universality of salvation in Jesus Christ.
The tragedy of original sin as well as personal and social sin has brought about the consequences of alienation of man from God, from his true self, from other persons, and from the world around him.
Indeed, “Christian realism sees the abysses of sin, but in the light of hope, greater than any evil, given by Jesus Christ’s act of redemption, in which sin and death are destroyed” (CSDC, 121). In this light, man is a being-unto-death-and-beyond, ultimately a being-unto-God. Life becomes a pilgrimage and death a graduation to eternal life.
II. We are for Responsible Parenthood
This is our goal: to enable parents to be aware of their rights as well as their duties in the procreation and education of their children. Planning one’s family in order to adequately care for every child that comes into the world is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly by parents.
Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter on the regulation of birth, Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), describes responsible parenthood in terms of the parents’ deliberate decision in planning the size of the family:
In relation to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth (HV, 10).
The Second Plenary Council of the Catholic Bishops of the Philippines explicitates further this meaning of responsible parenthood:
Christian parents must exercise responsible parenthood. While nurturing a generous attitude towards bringing new human life into the world, they should strive to beget only those children whom they can raise up in a truly human and Christian way. Towards this end, they need to plan their families according to the moral norms taught by the Church (PCP II, 583).
Planning one’s family highlights the central value of the family in human society. In particular, we can reflect on the role of the Christian family in the modern world, in terms of four tasks elaborated in Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation:
1) Forming a community of persons. As an “intimate community of life and love” (GS, 48), the family reflects and is “a real sharing in God’s love for humanity” (FC, 17). It is based on the indissolubility of marriage and conjugal communion. It fosters the dignity and vocation of all the persons in the family – husband and wife, children, relatives. It underlines the equal dignity of women with men, the rights of children, as well as care for the elderly. Indeed, this communion of persons makes the family “a school of deeper humanity” (GS, 52).
2) Serving life. The fundamental task of the family is to serve life – i.e., “transmitting by procreation the divine image from person to person” (FC, 28). Fecundity is seen as the fruit and the sign of conjugal love. The Church stands for life and stresses that “love between husband and wife must be fully human, exclusive and open to new life” (HV, 11).
Educating children in the essential values of human life is an integral part of serving life. These values include a sense of true justice, of true love, and of service to others. Parents are “the first and foremost educators of their children,” while the family itself is “the first and fundamental school of social living” (FC, 36-37). Education for chastity as well as education in the religious faith of the parents, are other essential values that must be respected and supported by the state.
3) Participating in the development of society. As the “first and vital cell of society,” and the “first school of the social virtues,” the family is “by nature and vocation open to other families and to society” (FC, 42). Hence, the family also plays a social and political role. Its members in their various capacities are called to contribute to the development of the wider community. Christian families should strive to live out the values of truth, freedom, justice and love—the pillars for building peace on earth, envisioned in Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris.
4) Sharing in the life and mission of the Church. The family is seen as the “domestic church” (FC, 49). In this light, it partakes in the threefold role of Jesus Christ as Prophet, Priest and King. The family is seen as (a) a believing and evangelizing community, (b) a community in dialogue with God, and (c) a community at the service of man (FC, 50).
Christian marriage itself is seen as a “profession of faith” and it is this journey of faith that continues throughout the life cycle of the family. The Christian family educates the children for life that enables them to discover the image of God in every brother and sister.
In sum, responsible parenthood gives birth to a Christian family that is a community of love and is at the threefold service of nurturing life, developing society, and continuing the mission of the Church.
III. We are for Natural Family Planning
If responsible parenthood is the goal for married couples, natural family planning is the means deemed morally acceptable by the Church. Pope John Paul II underlines “the difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle” (FC, 32). It is in this light that we can discuss the nature of natural family planning and ten reasons for its adoption.
a) What is Natural Family Planning?
Natural family planning is an approach for regulating births by identifying the fertile and infertile periods of a woman’s cycle. As an educational process and a way of life, there are four elements:
It involves the observation of a naturally occurring body sign or signs
• in order to identify the woman’s fertile and infertile periods.
• It involves the timing of intercourse
• to avoid or achieve pregnancy.
In contrast to artificial contraceptives, NFP means No DIDO − i.e., no Drugs, Injections, Devices, or Operations at any time. It also means no withdrawal.
b) Why Natural Family Planning?
1. Normal intercourse is preserved. Couples can plan the size of their families and space births the natural way. They do not resort to artificial means.
2. NFP is morally acceptable to people of all religions and cultures. It does not separate the love-giving and life-giving dimensions of the marriage act. The unitive and procreative ends of marriage are kept whole.
3. There are no inherent health risks in NFP methods. No pills, drugs, injections, devices or operations are used. A healthy body does not need this kind of “medical” treatment.
4. Modern NFP methods are effective and reliable. They are based on scientific studies and are time-tested. Simplified methods are easy to learn. Some NFP methods may be combined to reinforce each other.
5. There is no cost involved once the method has been learned. Couples are empowered not to rely on health centers, donor agencies, or drugstores. NFP is pro-poor, and not for profit of outside companies.
6. NFP becomes sustainable from generation to generation. Mothers can readily pass on the practice of NFP to their daughters.
7. NFP involves a joint decision by the couple. Neither partner feels being used by the other. It is an ideal way of exercising shared parenthood. A “contraceptive mentality” is avoided.
8. NFP engenders sexual discipline for the spouses through periodic abstinence. The practice of NFP manifests a conscious familiarity with the natural rhythm of the human body, mutual caring between the spouses, and the development of self-control that is carried over in the upbringing of the children.
9. Couples who use NFP seldom or never resort to abortion. They manifest an innate respect for human life. They welcome every child as a gift from God – even in the eventuality of an unexpected pregnancy.
10. Couples who use NFP seldom or never end up in separation or divorce. NFP enhances communication between spouses and promotes a wholesome family life.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the nature and rationale of NFP:
Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom (CCC, 2370).
IV. We are for enabling couples to make an Informed and Morally
Responsible Choice, according to the dictates of a Right Conscience “The education of an authentic freedom” constitutes our fourth pastoral guideline. Within the context of a pluralistic society, the government’s focus is to refrain from coercion and to provide information on all family planning methods that it deems necessary for couples to make an informed choice. On the other hand, the Church’s focus should be to provide information on all NFP methods and to help couples form a right conscience so that they are able to make not only an informed but also a morally responsible choice.
Three kinds of freedom are implied in this pastoral guideline. There is first the ontological freedom of every human person, endowed with reason and free will. Innate in his human dignity is the person’s freedom to choose good or evil—even to say “no” to his Creator, or to go against his very nature by doing what would be considered inhuman acts.
From the societal perspective, governments promote the civic and political freedoms of their citizens by safeguarding the exercise of their rights and duties within the bounds of public order. Thus the freedoms of speech, of assembly, of religion, of economic enterprise, of responsible parenthood itself, etc. are hallmarks of a democratic society. A dictatorial government, on the other hand, suppresses by superior force the basic freedoms of its citizens.
A third kind of freedom is what we call authentic freedom—i.e., the freedom to do what ought to be done. “Man’s dignity,” according to the Vatican II Council Fathers, “demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within…” (GS, 17). This inner prompting is what we mean by conscience which calls man to acknowledge the natural moral law given by God.
“For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God,” cite the Council Fathers. “His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be judged… By conscience in a wonderful way, that law is made known…” (GS, 16). Thus the individual assumes personal responsibility for all his human acts that are knowingly and willingly done, heeding the dictates of his conscience.
However, conscience itself needs to be formed and guided by the objective norms of moral conduct. Ignorance or sinful habits pose as obstacles to the formation of a right conscience. It is in this light that values formation is an integral part of our All-NFP program − to enable parents as well as their children to acquire “a truly responsible freedom” (FC, 21).
This includes providing information on all scientifically-based NFP methods as a pastoral imperative. Corollary to this would be presenting the positive motivations for NFP and its integral attractiveness, instead of simply attacking the agencies promoting contraceptives. “Proclamation is always more important than denunciation,” notes Pope John Paul II, “and the latter cannot ignore the former, which gives it true solidity and the force of higher motivation” (SRS, 41).
In summary, these four pastoral guidelines provide the core values for our All-NFP ministry. Couples, indeed, have to consider several crucial factors: the good of their children already born or yet to come, their own situation at the material and spiritual level, and the over-all good of their family, of society, and of the Church. “It is the married couple themselves,” note the Council Fathers, “who must in the last analysis arrive at these judgments before God” (GS, 50).
For its part, the local church can carry out its servant role by reaching out to as many couples as possible with the good news of various natural family planning methods today that are proven to be safe, reliable, practicable and adaptable to the various circumstances of family life. Instead of resorting to condemnation or confrontation, we find that for concerned couples, authentic values can best be formed with charity, compassion, and the formation of conscience.
CCC - Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II, 1994.
CSDC - Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Pontifical Council for
Justice and Peace, 2004.
FC - Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), Pope John Paul II, 1981.
GS - Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World),
Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, 1965.
HV - Humanae Vitae (Of Human life), Pope Paul VI, 1968.
PCP II - Second Plenary Council of the Philippines, Catholic Bishops’ Conference
of the Philippines, 1991.
SRS - Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (The Social Concern of the Church), Pope John
Paul II, 1987.