Morality of Natural Family Planning

Early on the morning of January 25th, NFP International received an email from a gentleman who is highly critical of NFP.  Though he does not use the word “providentialism,” that’s his position.  He also posted a similar note on a blogsite where a Catholic deacon was reviewing once again the terms used in ecclesial documents to describe the moral use of NFP.  This subject has been worked over more than a few times, so I will be relatively brief.

In all of the comments or rants I have seen against the use of NFP, the writers completely ignore Ecological Breastfeeding as a form of NFP.  What they mean by the generic term, NFP or Natural Family Planning, is solely what we call Systematic Natural Family Planning.  These writers fail to make this distinction, perhaps out of ignorance about eco-breastfeeding or perhaps in some cases because their argument about being open to God’s will falls apart completely with regard to eco-breastfeeding as a God-given natural way of spacing babies.  Unfortunately, this distinction is rarely made even within the NFP movement.

Our correspondent quoted section 17 of Humanae Vitae where Pope Paul VI predicted the harmful effects of the societal acceptance of contraception, but then he criticizes the same Pope for promoting NFP.  “In other words, Pope Paul VI predicted that contraception would evolve from ‘a lifestyle choice’ into a weapon of mass destruction. The Pope wrote all this and then went ahead and started promoting NFP.  Why?  The promptings to promote NFP are not from God[,] their [they’re] from hell…unless God is a liar!”  He then quoted familiar pro-baby verses from the Bible.

The anti-NFP critics have a point—Catholic teaching calls for generosity in having children.  But it also teaches the practice of Christian prudence which is different from materialistic prudence.  In our teaching we make it very clear that systematic NFP is not “Catholic birth control.”  The decision to use systematic NFP should be made in the light of an examination of motives and only in the face of sufficiently serious reasons not to  seek pregnancy at that time.  This is well spelled out in our manual, and any interested reader can obtain it in print or via a download at the NFPI website,  For many couples, this thoughtful consideration and decision making is the hardest part of natural family planning.

The decision to do Ecological Breastfeeding, on the other hand, doesn’t entail any such soul searching.  It requires only 1) the realization that this form of breastfeeding provides the best nutrition and baby care and 2) the mother’s freedom to have her baby with her.  For many couples, it is such a pleasant experience that they are looking forward to another baby by the time fertility returns.

It seems to me that the critics of systematic NFP would use their energy better to become well informed about what NFPI teaches in a well balanced way.  Then they would be in a position to present a rational and religious case and ask the diocese to insist that all these things be taught in all the various diocesan NFP efforts.  It is high time for every diocesan NFP effort to promote and teach ecological breastfeeding.

The right kind of diocesan natural baby spacing courses can be a work of the New Evangelization, making it clear that Jesus is the ultimate Author of Catholic teaching on love and marriage, but that may be rare at present.  In fact, some NFP programs take pride in being solely secular.  The time has come to proclaim without fear the fullness of Catholic teaching plus providing sufficient information—including eco-breastfeeding—so couples can make informed decisions for lives of Christian discipleship and baby care.

Pedophilia: Why the Rise and Fall?

The recent (January 16) grilling of Vatican officials by United Nations officials about the sexual abuse of minors by priests plus its cover-up by dioceses does not seem to have revealed anything new.  It seems to be primarily a way of trying to oust the Holy See from the UN and a victory for the habitual anti-Catholics.  Left unexplored and unanswered are the more interesting questions.  Why was there this burst of immorality by priests directed toward children and adolescents? 

After the news of this sexual scandal exploded in 2002, the US Bishops appointed a disinterested group to study it in detail.  The result wasThe Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010, A Report Presented to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops by the John Jay College Research Team” dated May 18, 2011.  A month later I published a blog on it on a now-discontinued website.

What follows is a slightly shortened version of that article.  Unfortunately, I can no longer find the Report at the USCCB website, and the PDF I found elsewhere no longer has the two graphs mentioned below.  The information may be there, but it is not as visible in 2014 as it was in 2011.


In my [2011] review, I found the most interesting statistics were in two graphs, Figure 2.3.1, “Annual Count of Incidents Reported and Priests Accused, by Year” and Figure 2.3.2, “Distribution of Alleged Incidents of Abuse by Date of First Instance.”  The first shows an increasing number of incidents reported each year during the Fifties, a marked jump in 1960—the year the birth control Pill was so widely publicized and accepted, continued increases with another large increase in 1969—right after the dissenters and millions of Catholics thumbed their noses at the traditional moral teaching affirmed by Humanae Vitae, a continued climb to 1980, and then a marked decline each year to 2002, somewhat below what it was in 1950.  In other words, when the Scandal was publicized in 2002, it was already over, at least in terms of sensational numbers.

The second graph more or less paralleled the first.  Of special interest was a 100% increase in the numbers of “first instance” from 1959 (150) to 1960 (300).  The numbers of “first instance” then dropped back to about 200, then slowly increased to just over 300 in 1968, and took another huge jump in 1970 to about 425.  Beginning in 1981, the numbers gradually fell to about 25, slightly less than in 1951, and way less than in 1950 when approximately 125 first instances were recorded.

I found nothing in the report that attempted to explain this rise and fall of the incidences of sexual abuse by priests and deacons, so I will offer my own interpretation.  The gradual increases in the Fifties may be due primarily to the increases in the numbers of priests in the Fifties.  The gradual decline from 1981 to 2002 may be due partly to the gradual aging and decrease in numbers of priests in that period, but see also below for possible theological influences.  The significant increases in the Sixties occurred at a time when traditional sexual morality was being questioned not only in the culture but also within the Catholic Church.  The huge increases in both the “Annual Count” and “First Instance” in 1960 so parallel the widespread societal acceptance of the [birth control] Pill that it is difficult not to see an association.  Similarly, the large increase in the Annual Count (1969) and First Instances (1970) parallel the widespread Catholic rejection of Humanae Vitae and the entire Tradition of sexual morality that the encyclical represents.  Thus I maintain that the theological maelstroms of the 1960s and the 1970s had a significant causal effect on the great Scandal that was taking place in those years.”

There is no shortage of evidence that thinking leads to behavioral changes and then to more such thinking and further changes.  In his 1929 book, A Preface to Morals, secular humanist Walter Lippmann criticized the “progressives” of his day for adopting the logic of birth control and abandoning the logic of human nature.  The expanding use of barrier methods of birth control during the Roaring Twenties led the revisionists to think that if it is permissible to separate having sex from having babies, it would also be permissible to separate sex from marriage itself.  And, without children to care for, they further speculated that it would be progressive to marry, have contraceptive sex, and then divorce when boredom outweighed immediate pleasure.  They even gave it a name—companionate marriage.

The very next year, the Anglican bishops gathered for a periodic meeting at the Lambeth Palace of the Church of England and debated the birth control issue.  “Conservative” Bishop Charles Gore argued that the acceptance of contraception would open a Pandora’s Box of sexual and social evils including the acceptance of sodomy, but his side lost the vote.  Thus in 1930 the Church of England became the first organized church to accept contraception, but Gore’s witness provides a wonderful example of being able to foresee the effects of the logic of birth control.  By the early 21stcentury, the Church of England had not only accepted marital contraception but also sodomy and even the ordination of openly homosexual bishops.

The battles of the Sexual Revolution within the Catholic Church were fought in the 1960s with many essentially thoughtless articles during the early Sixties advocating the acceptance of unnatural forms of birth control.  Almost every writer qualified his or her comments by pledging full acceptance of Catholic teaching once the Pope clarified it.  Most of those writers became active dissenters, however, when Pope Paul VI issued his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which clarified the issue by reaffirming the traditional teaching that marital contraception is seriously immoral.

Less than two years later, self-styled revisionist Michael Valente spilled the beans about the logic of birth control, saying that in rejecting Humanae Vitae the revisionists had also rejected the entire natural law theory on which, he said, it was based.  Therefore, according to Valente, they had no way to say a firm NO to any imaginable sexual behavior between consenting persons.  He specifically included bestiality.

In 1971, the generally liberal journal, Theological Studies, published my article, “Continued Dissent: Is It Responsible Loyalty?” in which I showed that the decision-making principles of arch-dissenter Fr. Charles Curran could not say a moral NO even to spouse swapping.  No one ever complained that I had created a straw man, but neither the Valente book nor my article had any slowdown effect on the birth control propaganda by other Catholic writers.

The point of this bit of history is that what passed for moral theology regarding sexuality during the Sixties and Seventies—and perhaps well into the Eighties in some places—was garbage.  It couldn’t say NO to anything of mutual consent.  In 1977 Paulist Press published a book by the Catholic Theology Society of America that so reflected this thinking that it drew an analogy between Catholic homosexuals doing sodomy and Catholic married couples doing contraception.  They used cautious wording, but the inference was clear that while both behaviors contradicted the formal teaching, they were really okay and the teaching would have to change.

Now, imagine someone who is taught, at least by inference, that Catholic teaching on sexuality is wrong and that sodomy is loving behavior.  Imagine that the person who imbibes this erroneous teaching is a Catholic seminarian or priest with a same-sex attraction.  What is to keep him from putting his inclinations into action?  One might say that he should know that such actions with a minor and especially with a prepubescent are both illegal and wrong, and I agree.  But also in the theological and sexual milieu at the time was the rallying cry of some homosexuals, “Sex before eight or it’s too late.”  Assuming that such a slogan reflected their real thoughts, one could imagine that they thought a bit of coercion or persuasion might be permissible, somewhat like a parent exercising coercion or persuasion to get their children to eat their vegetables.

Every Catholic bishop knows well the axiom, Agere sequitur esseAction follows being.  Or more loosely, “What you do follows from what you are.”  They also know that to a large extent, what you think is what you are.  After all, isn’t the whole purpose of Christian education to help the student think with the mind of Christ and thus act as a Christian should?

I am quite aware that even when people have had the best education about morality they can still cave into weakness and sin, but I maintain that it becomes much easier to engage in sinful behavior if one has been trained to think that traditional moral teachings are wrong.

The bottom line consists of questions, not answers.  In the analyses sponsored by the US Bishops since the 2002 exposure of the Great Scandal, where is the analysis of the moral theology taught to the sexual abusers both in the seminary and in their later seminars and reading?  Have admitted offenders been asked about their overall thinking about sexual morality?  Was their thinking influenced by the fact that the US Bishops continued to employ Fr. Charles Curran at the Catholic University of America for 19 years after he led the dissent from Humanae Vitae?  (One dissenting priest told me that I was in dissent from the bishops because I disagreed with Fr. Curran whom the bishops continued to employ.)  In short, if education is deemed important, what effort has been made to examine the seminary moral theology of the Sixties to the present?  If it has been made, what, if any, changes have been made?  And if that effort has not been made, why not?

To return to the gradual decline in the Scandal starting in 1981, it’s very possible this was related to the efforts of Pope John Paul II to reaffirm authentic Catholic teaching on sexuality.  The Synod on the Family in 1980, the near martyrdom of John Paul II on May 13, 1981, the publication of Familiaris ConsortioThe Apostolic Exhortation on the Family in late 1981, and his continued “Theology of the Body” lectures certainly had their good effects, and one of them may have been to reorder the thinking of many priests and deacons with a same-sex attraction.  Thinking does affect action.

Pope Francis and “Unbridled Capitalism”

I thought that the fuss about Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) had died out, but The Cincinnati Enquirer recently devoted a full page story (Tuesday, Jan 7, 2014) headlined “Papal shot at unbridled capitalism stirs debate.”  Coming more than six weeks after the publication of the Apostolic Exhortation, the content of what the Pope said was no longer news, so the subject was political commentary.

One Catholic politician said, “I don’t dwell on what the Pope has to say about economics.  I’m more mindful of what the Pope has to say about faith and morals.”  He might be surprised to know that economics has to do with human behavior, not just numbers, and within the Catholic Church the subject started as a part of moral theology.

The subject of debate is what the Pope wrote about “unbridled capitalism.”  Please note that the words “unbridled capitalism” do not appear in the document.  Others seem to recognize that certain behaviors deserve that title, including behaviors criticized by the Pope, but the Pope does not use even the word “capitalism” in this document.

My father’s sense of justice was agitated by the unbridled capitalism that he had witnessed.  John D. Rockefeller and a partner became wealthy in the produce business  and then built an oil refinery during the Civil War.  By the end of the war, he had bought out some of his partners, and by 1870 he formed Standard Oil.  He would enter a geographic market, price his product below cost, drive the existing marketers out of business, and then raise the price and extend his growing monopoly.  That sort of abuse led to the formation of the Sherman Anti-trust Law of 1890, thus putting at least somewhat of a bridle on the previously ruthless and unbridled Rockefeller capitalism.

It is probably true that in the United States and in much of Western Europe, we no longer have the economics that can be called “unbridled capitalism.”  But that doesn’t mean that economics is no longer part of moral theology or that our systems cannot be greatly improved for the betterment of those who are excluded from participating in the benefits of a prosperous economy.

The remaining Rockefellers remain at the top of the economic sphere, and Pope Francis is on solid ground when he writes about the growing separation of the very rich from the very poor.  He rightly urges the wealthy and would-be wealthy to be less concerned about growing more wealthy and to be more concerned about the poor.  He does not, however, address the issue of what the poor can do to help themselves.

As I have written before, one of the great impediments to participation in the benefits of a prosperous economy is fornication.  In the United States, the single greatest source of new poverty is the household headed by a single mother with children.  The American elite have tried to address this with condoms, the Pill, the Shot, and abortion, and the rate of illegitimacy has only proceeded to rise.  The answer is and must be spiritual and moral.

It is time for the Church to affirm this over and over again until it finally sinks in, first within the social-justice agencies of the Church and then within the culture.  But how can the local Church expect to have any influence on single young men and women, many of them unchurched, if it won’t even attempt to do what it can do among its own pew-sitters?  And what it can do, but largely refuses to do, is to require that engaged couples attend the right kind of NFP course, one that includes Catholic morality as well as ecological breastfeeding and the full sympto-thermal method.

What is needed is a new book on the subject of Catholic teaching on economics.  It should place its foundation in Sacred Scripture and moral theology.  Then it should place each of the social justice encyclicals and exhortations in their historical context.  It should also include the centuries-old moral theology concerning breastfeeding and the needs and rights of babies as Fr. William Virtue, PhD, did in his masterful work, Mother and Infant: The Moral Theology of Embodied Self-Giving in Motherhood in Light of the Exemplar Couplet Mary and Jesus.  It is my hunch that many folks, including Catholics, are quite unaware of both the content of this body of teaching and the social ills to which it has responded and continues to address.  In the meantime, I suggest that most of us will benefit by a careful reading of Evangelii Gaudium and also re-reading Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae.